The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"In the future, everyone will be smart for one minute. "...  ...Carolyn Foster Segal.

Commentary of the Day - March 23, 2009:  The One Minute Egg(head).  Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.

It sounds like a joke: a community college is offering what it calls "micro-lectures," whose lengths run from one to three minutes (presumably the extended three-minute lectures are for subjects like Calculus IV).  In fact, at one time it was a joke -- as in Father Guido Sarducci's "The Five-Minute University."  But this is no laughing matter.  There's no time for laughter, or much of anything else.  We've got some serious business to take care of here -- and quickly.

The front page of a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education featured an article by David Shieh with the title "These Lectures Are Gone in 60 Seconds: Minute-long talks find success at a community college" (March 6. 2009).  The college leading the (concise) clarion call here is San Juan College, in Farmington, New Mexico, where last fall's first venture in micro-lectures, in an online degree program in occupational safety, was so successful that the school is now "expanding  [micro-lectures] to subjects like reading, tribal government, and veterinary studies."

This exciting new pedagogical development should be a relief to everyone and has arrived just in time, for it's the perfect answer to current economic concerns.  Instead of cutting course offerings, we can save our classes by simply cutting 95% of the course content.  Students, who have long complained about tedious class sessions and the price (and contents) of textbooks, will now be able to complete a traditional four-year program in just one semester.  Administrators will be delighted to find that enrollments will "quickly balloon."  In its second semester, enrollment in that program on occupational safety "grew to 449."  (What is the maximum capacity for a program on "occupational safety" in cyberspace?)  Nor should faculty members despair -- they should have no difficulty in creating and executing hundreds of these new online lectures.  The article reassures readers that "course development is relatively quick" as indeed it must be, since the new verbiage-free micro-lectures should take about as much time to design and/or deliver as it takes to compose a quick e-mail message.  Course content should be slightly less heavier, in other words, than the home page of

In all fairness, as Shieh noted, there was an earlier precedent: it seems that the University of Pennsylvania has a 60-second lecture series "to showcase its faculty."  The Penn organizer does note that "such short lectures . . . have their limitations."  As Special Agent Gibbs of NCIS  would say, "You think?"  (The answer to Gibbs's rhetorical question is that we may not have to require much of that activity at all.)  Administrators and instructors at San Juan "said the format may not work as well [emphasis mine] in classes requiring sustained discussion or explanation of complicated processes."  You must remember those -- classes formerly known as college courses.  Forget debates about traditional-semester length courses versus accelerated weekend models; forget debates about the liberal arts (forget debates on any subject). It's apparently possible to complete a class session in the amount of time Jeopardy contestants have to guess the final question.  (The time involved for the entire set of lectures for a three-credit course -- will now be slightly less than the running time for back-to-back episodes of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.)

I decided to perform an experiment, to see how much I could cram into a minute. I teach American literature and "creative writing: poetry," so my test subjects were Walt Whitman (I made it to the third line of the second of the 52 sections of "Song of Myself") and Emily Dickinson (I made it through one poem -- #67 -- "Success is counted sweetest" [12 lines] and 7 lines of a second 12-line poem -- #449 -- "I died for Beauty."  Without the last five lines of that Dickinson poem, however, much of the irony was lost, and it was soon apparent that for maximum effect it would be best in all future micro-lectures to paraphrase the first stanza so that I would have adequate time (15 seconds) to read the last stanza.  After that second trial, I decided to take a lengthy break (5 minutes), during which time I pondered what exactly the students in "occupational safety" covered in their 60 seconds.

There is help for those who wish to join the mini-revolution of the micro-lesson.  A sidebar captioned "How to Create a One Minute Lecture," provides David Penrose's  handy five-step guide.  Penrose, according to the head-note, is the course designer for SunGard Higher Education who designed San Juan College's micro-lectures.

Step one addresses the pesky problem of lecture content: "List the key concepts you are trying [emphasis mine] to convey in the [traditional] 60-minute lecture.  That series of phrases [emphasis mine] will form the core of your micro-lecture."  My personal best (three attempts) was 53 minutes and 47 seconds (52 minutes and 47 seconds too long), but then I kept falling into the trap of using full sentences.  And I hadn't even allowed precious time for Step 2: Write a 15- to 30 second introduction and conclusion.  They will provide context for your key concepts! [emphasis and punctuation mine].

Steps 3 and 5 are concerned with technical matters like recording and uploading.  Step 4 addresses pedagogical concerns of process, comprehension, application, and assessment: "Design an assignment to follow the lecture that will direct students to readings or activities that allow them to explore the key concepts."  One very useful activity might be to take another course in the same subject at a different college.  Step 4 continues: "Combined with a written assignment, that should allow students to learn the material."  But wait -- what about those ballooning enrollments -- who exactly will be reading the 449 written assignments?  After approximately 12 seconds of panic, I realized that I could simply require one-sentence essays.  At 10 words per sentence, I would only be reading the equivalent of nine 500-word essays (without any of the usual attendant worries over coherence and transitions).  I could easily allow the enrollments for my new micro-lecture in Poetry (the haiku) to build to 800, 1,000, even 2,000 students, and still complete my grading in far less time than I do now!  And once I really applied myself, I realized that I had material for thousands of these classes of the future: American Transcendentalism (any one sentence from Thoreau's Walden), Advanced Poetic Technique (the simile), Pop Art (a single soup can), and so on.

In the future, everyone will be smart for one minute.

2009, Carolyn Foster Segal.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The Irascible Professor comments: While those 60-second "lectures" from Penn (one of my alma-maters) are intended primarily to stimulate donations from alumni, the ones at San Juan College -- on the other hand -- appear to be "serious" attempts at teaching.  That's scary.  If you stop to blow your nose, you could miss the whole lecture!


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© 2009 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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