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Handicapped Classrooms: Lecture Accessible?

To the Editor:

I’d like to tell you Tech writers and editors that my thumbs have been constantly up at you since I arrived here last year. However, I was offended by a slick side comment in the Stata Center article (“Glass, Bricks and Angles”, Oct. 24). Actually, it made me queasy. The article quoted Christopher J. Terman ’78, a senior lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science as saying that the multimedia capabilities of the new Stata Center classrooms will make “‘chalk-talk’ lectures a thing of the past.” As a former teacher with nine years of high school, college, and corporate teaching experience, I really appreciate “chalk-talk.” (God, that’s such cheesy market-speak.) I have developed curricula for and taught with some of the latest presentation software, animation, video, and display technology, but I’m still a sucker for a really well-delivered lecture -- with extra chalk.

While I realize that Dr. Terman is not necessarily talking about replacing standard lectures, he should realize that such facilities shape teaching techniques. For me, deriding “chalk-talk” falls in line with an exaggerated emphasis on learner-centered environments, multimedia presentation, and the apotheosis of learning today: interactivity. I emphasize the latter word, because I think “chalk-talk” can be highly interactive, but doesn’t get billed as such. A really engaging speaker engenders interactivity. You know? Listening, I mean really listening to another person speak, is about the most interactive thing we can do. However, funding isn’t directed that way. It’s directed towards tools to capture our attention, ergonomics to keep us plugged in, and classrooms made for multitasking rather than oratorical elaboration. Multimedia for me wouldn’t be an issue if there weren’t serious problems with finding strong lecturers at MIT and at the university level in this “Information Age.” Right now I have a class with an amazing lecturer. I know he’s amazing because as he speaks hands go up while people are writing. Sometimes he’ll take questions and sometimes he’ll keep going. The class is three hours long, features a little multimedia, a lot of chalk, and students that are riveted.

It mystifies me that MIT has put millions of dollars into improving learning with interactive computer systems and done so little to refine professors’ lecturing skills. Instead of multimedia tools, I’d like in-service funding for professors to get more training in presentation skills. I’m not going to argue that multimedia, Internet, and shi-shi lecture halls have to go, but I think it would make a powerful statement to balance such expenditures with investments in human skills. And if Frank Gehry is really trying to build a human village in the Stata Center, such training would be essential.

Michael Epstein
MIT Comparative Media Studies