Reading the (Class)room: There’s No App for That — Josh Neufeld, Department of Biology

josh neufeld blog photo
I teach a 2nd year “Fundamentals of Microbiology” course, with hundreds of students distributed across multiple lecture sections. After years of prodding by student evaluations, I consented to posting videocasts of each lecture last term. Previously, my concern had been that attendance would drop. This same concern accompanies the development of online courses, which will be happening to my course, serving students who are off campus. With online course material circulating widely, in addition to the availability of videocasts from past and current years, why should students come to class? Given these concerns, I was very surprised that, although videocasts were posted within an hour of each lecture last term, attendance was higher than ever. This unexpected outcome reminded me of a videocast-requesting student evaluation comment from the previous year: “I believe being in class has its own benefits, students will still come”. But why?

At the 2014 Waterloo Science Grad Ball, I stopped by the mixing board of DJ Whitegold (pictured above), who is described as “one of Canada’s most versatile and talented DJs”. DJ Whitegold explained how the turntables he uses on his mixer no longer hold vinyl LPs, but instead are linked to music tracks on his system’s laptop. Nonetheless, he still uses the traditional one-handed turntable-rocking motion to help transition between two songs seamlessly, synchronizing the beats (“beatmatching”) and 16-bar phrases (“phrasematching”) of each song. After a moment of reflection, I asked whether software could automate the process of beatmatching and phrasematching, which would eliminate potential human error and possibly even make the DJ unnecessary. “Yes, there are apps that can automate the mixes,” DJ Whitegold was quick to reply, “But, there is something important that no app can do.” Gesturing toward the sea of science students, he continued, “Read an audience.” DJ Whitegold explained that the ability to connect with a crowd, sense their minds and moods, manipulate a group’s connection to the music, and engineer a dance experience are all important and irreplaceable skills of expert DJs, skills that can never be automated.

It later occurred to me that this conversation captured the teaching experience perfectly and helped address my concerns about recorded course content. Analogous to DJ Whitegold’s role of synchronizing musical tracks, the classroom experience is fundamentally one of beatmatching and phrasematching ideas into a coherent lecture. This process enables students to follow new information and understand concepts, not on a dance floor, but in a lecture hall. And of course we can digitize this process by offering online versions of our courses and by posting lecture videocasts. But there is something else important that can never be captured in an online course offering, or even in a videocast. Professors work very hard to read a room in every lecture, gauge student comprehension and mindset, sense and manipulate energy and attention, react to body language, engage students in group conversation, pause, watch, smile, and surprise. Much like a DJ manipulating a dance floor, the ability to shape a classroom experience is reactive and dynamic; it is art and it is science, it takes experience, and it can take a lifetime of practice to perfect.

Although videocasts have undeniable value for students reviewing course material, and online courses are essential for off-campus education, DJ Whitgold’s comments helped convince me that in-class education is alive and well. DJs are central to nightclub stages despite digitization, and professors in lecture halls remain an essential element of university education.

Josh Neufeld (Twitter: @JoshDNeufeld) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology, studying the microbial ecology of terrestrial, aquatic, and host-associated communities. For several years, Josh has taught a large second year course (600-900 students) as well as a small upper year course (18 students), and is a recipient of the 2013 Jack Carlson Teaching Excellence Award by the Department of Biology.

Photo credit: DJ Whitegold