Jimmy Wales: Boring university lectures 'are doomed'

Jimmy Wales Jimmy Wales says "big-brand" universities will have to adapt to online learning

The boring university lecture is going to be the first major casualty of the rise in online learning in higher education, says Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

The custodian of the world's biggest online encyclopaedia says that unless universities respond to the rising tide of online courses new major players will emerge to displace them, in the way that Microsoft arrived from nowhere alongside the personal computer.

"I think that the impact is going to be massive and transformative," says Mr Wales, describing the importance of the MOOCs (massive open online courses) that have signed up millions of students.

"It's also been slower than anyone would have anticipated. But I'm not a person who thinks that people will be able to just go online and get a complete education without the guidance of the teacher. That sort of simplistic model shouldn't be our framework."

Instead he thinks that universities need to use online technology where it really works.

And from his own experience as a student, the traditional university lecture should have been condemned decades ago and replaced with an online video recording that can be stopped and started.

Recorded lectures

"I was taking an advanced calculus class and my instructor was reputed to be a fabulous researcher, but he barely spoke English. He was a very boring and bad teacher and I was absolutely lost and in despair.

"So I went to the campus tutoring centre and they had Betamax tapes of a professor who had won teaching awards. Basically I sat with those tapes and took class there. But I still had to go to the other one and sat there and wanted to kill myself.


  • Most recent monthly figures, for March 2013, show a new high of more than 21 billion page views
  • Biggest region for readers is Europe, almost twice as large as North America
  • 78,000 regular editors
  • Hoax entries included a biography of blues singer Snow Blind Driveway; wet floor warning signs dating to 220BC; Reich Corps of the Trombone set up by Goebbels; and that Brierfield in Lancashire was the inspiration for JRR Tolkien's evil land of Mordor
  • Most edited and most vandalised entry is for George W Bush
  • Deleted categories include "Permanent residents of hell" and "Guys who used to have long hair"
  • Most visited entry in a single day remains Michael Jackson when news broke of the singer's death

"I thought at that time, in the future, why wouldn't you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people's heads?

"We're still not quite there. In university you're still likely to be in a large lecture hall with a very boring professor, and everyone knows it's not working very well. It's not even the best use of that professor's time or the audience."

Online courses provide such libraries of video lectures, supplemented with interactive information, that can be used at any time on a tablet computer or laptop.

And Mr Wales suggests the future model of higher education will be to allow students to use recordings of lectures - and to use the teaching time to discuss and develop what students have been watching.

"It seems much more effective and is the direction I think we're going to go."

Wikipedia itself is central to this changing landscape in which huge amounts of high-quality information are available free anywhere with an internet connection.

The sheer scale of the information and the volume of its consumption has no parallel in history. Wikipedia's latest internet traffic is running at more than 21 billion page impressions per month.

But he says it remains uncertain whether universities will be ready to change. "There's a certain inertia in the system."

Adapt or die

"The really interesting challenge for big-brand universities is whether they are going to move into that space. If we thought of universities as normal businesses we would say, 'Will they be able to adapt to the PC revolution?' It's that kind of question. Will Harvard or MIT, Oxford or Cambridge, be able to adapt? Or will Microsoft come out of nowhere?

Mobile phones in a Bangkok shopping mall Wikipedia's mobile site has reached more than 3 billion page views per month

"It's going to be really fascinating to see it unfold."

In terms of technology in education, he says we should look at how it's being driven by interest in home schooling.

"In the US, for younger children, the home schooling movement is huge.

"There are a load of online educational resources, they're booming. Parents are looking for the best education for their kids, they realise these tools are working. There's a marketplace for it long before the traditional school is going to think about it."

Mr Wales himself grew up in a small private school run by his mother and grandmother in Alabama. There were four other children in his grade.

"It was like a one-room schoolhouse, the kind of place Abe Lincoln went to school," he says.

"Education was our life, something incredibly valued by my family."

Developing world

An important part of Wikipedia's future focus, he says, is going to reach the modern world's version of isolated school houses in the developing world.

In wealthier countries there might be the luxury of a debate about whether Wikipedia is better or worse than printed encyclopaedias. But Mr Wales wants to support languages in Africa where there have never been encyclopaedias in the first place.

Start Quote

What is much more deeply political is the concept of Wikipedia, that ordinary people should be able to participate in the grand human dialogue. It's a very subversive idea in a society that is top-down”

End Quote Jimmy Wales

Wikipedia operates in 286 different languages, but the content is very unevenly spread. There are more than 4 million articles in English, while Xhosa, spoken by almost 8 million people in South Africa, only has 147 articles.

"Our role in languages of the developing world is quite different from our role in English.

"We've still got a long way to go. I'd say we've increasingly turned our focus to the languages of the developing world. It's really of great importance. Our goal is a free encyclopaedia for everyone in their own language."

He rejects the idea that Wikipedia's instant knowledge represents some kind of dumbing down. It has long been accused of being the hidden hand in countless school and university assignments.

But Mr Wales says it plays a vital democratic role in allowing ordinary people to become informed in a way that would never have been possible before.

If there is a story in the news, people can find out the background for themselves. "We can see it in our traffic. There's a massive spike.

"In some rose-coloured view of the past we all went home and read books about it. The truth is that we didn't.

"It's remarkable that people now have the opportunity. It's not a Utopian state, but people have the possibility to do their own research."

Pub quiz

Mr Wales also defends what Wikipedia represents for free speech in countries with censorship and a lack of human rights.

Young Ones parody of University Challenge, 1984 Do not expect Wikipedia's chief to follow the Young Ones on a television quiz

"The impact of the knowledge we bring is important, but what is much more deeply political is the concept of Wikipedia, that ordinary people should be able to participate in the grand human dialogue.

"It's a very subversive idea in a society that is top-down and 'do as your masters tell you,'" he says.

The online encyclopaedia is now 12 years old, launched in the same month as iTunes and when Greece adopted the euro. It has grown to 26 million articles and has more than 500 million individual users a month.

Wikipedia's next development will be to make it easier for a wider variety of people to write and edit articles, with an editing tool that is more user-friendly.

"For people who aren't computer geeks, it's intimidating. The user base of active editors tend to be computer-savvy. We want to diversify, so they can be geeks but not computer geeks."

Of course, there's still a big unanswered question. How would the king of Wikipedia get on in a pub quiz? Would he have to illicitly check his smartphone under the table?

"I've declined to go on a TV quiz show. There's no upside for me. Unless I get every single question right I'm going to be subject to mockery. Because I'm meant to be the encyclopaedia guy."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    I prophesy that university as we know it shall disappear in 20 years. All the permanent lecturer/professorial posts; all the ceremonial paraphenalia; all the degree awards and titles; even the old-fashioned written exams. Universities have lost the plot. They are obsessed with abstract research rankings and administration, rather than training people for employment in industry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    How long before the first electronic course 'study packs' appear to help students guarantee a pass. The one major benefit fo the current system is lecturers get a feel for the ability of their students and who may be trying to pass off work cribbed from the internet as their own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Students these days will go to university, lap it up, irrespective of how irrelevent the courses are or how terrible the teaching and get into huge debt for it. People these days have no choice, thanks to corrupt politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Universities are not schools. Most lecturers are researchers fulfilling their required allocation of teaching time, rather than teachers. While a dull lecturing style can be difficult to deal with, most university learning should be self-directed; the lecturer is there to facilitate, not supply all the answers up front. How could you ask questions, or for clarification, from an uploaded recording?

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Traditional universities are going to end up the educational equivalent of the ailing high street unless they adapt. The online education revolution combined with unaffordable fees will make them places for society's elite.

    Just look at the Open University's numbers; over 200,000 students with a rapidly increasing figure of young students.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    @a2ed_com: What do you mean lectures aren't boring? I have had hundreds of teachers and except for a few, the rest have been absolutely boring and even downright incorrect and useless. It's just that I was a good student all along and got away by reading on my own. The internet should not and will not replace good teachers but the bad ones, well it had better put an end to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I think different lecturers appeal to different people. I had a couple of lecturers (in control theory and engineering maths) whose lectures were brick walls to most of my cohort, but whose voices came to me in exams like OB1's came to Luke. I thought they were masters of clarity.

    I lectured - laboriously - part time for 2 years. I got rave reviews and results from Asperger's students. Go figure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Bravo. I stopped going to Uni most years for about 3/4 months because lectures offered me nothing. Turned up at the start and closed off at year end. Seminar groups were useful and working groups but lectures were just like animated books (and not that animated!), I read books myself. No value add.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Do we need the most entertaining professor? Good lectures are hopefully often entertaining, but they are really about providing relevant information, about prioritising fundamental ideas over technical issues. Education is a serious issue. It is part of a successful and competitive economy, part of our culture and part of our ability to make progress.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    @40MJG you make a very good point, however i know in my course that there is little else but lectures and very dull restricting labs. This is contrary to what i believed when i attended the open day years ago. This is unrelated but a view to how boring uni is, in a lab, bearing in mind im a third year mech eng student we are not aloud to use a Stanley knife or hack saw. so timid

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I do not accept any assignment which cites an article from wikipedia as a reference. I encourage my students to read the original 'real' literature (electronic or hard print).
    Maybe I'm just ageing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    this is a great idea for some learners. however learners like myself tend to pick up more with an actual person explaining it and then reading it, everyone learns different. Also this idea would be even better if you find jobs to all of thos that will be made redundant due to this

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Running a business can be an exhilrating experience, but doing accounts is rarely the highlight of the month. Uni lectures account for a very small part of the expereince; DON'T be so quick to dismiss them, even if they are perceived as sometimes being boring.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    @3, muttlee5:

    "I certainly can remember the worst lecturer at uni. He was so bad,delivering everything in a dull monotone with just the odd drawing on the board,that only myself and two or three other students ever turned up after the first lecture,"

    Which was the cause and which the effect?

    Years of student apathy is bound to take a toll upon even the most enthusiastic lecturer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.


    I wouldn't be surprised to see a boom in online education. Sometimes people find it easier to interact with a computer screen, perhaps this method matches certain personality types?

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    The University of York should certainly take note of the 'end to boring lectures' - let that serve as a warning to all!

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I attended a seminar at my university on MOOC's recently. The topic was broadly medical and explained how MOOC's can deliver information efficiently.

    After one lecture, I asked about the possibility of an individual completing several MOOC's from an online course and thinking they were a medical doctor or worse still a surgeon.

    There is an obvious problem with MOOC's - regulation is needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    MOOCs are a snare and a delusion. They arise from a static view of education as memorising facts. In practice the boring lecturers will move to producing boring online lectures. Online learning can provide a useful adjunct to face-to-face but has to be pedagogy-led not technology-led. Student-centred approaches like problem-based learning are more effective, but harder to achieve online.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Throughout school and University the best teachers/lecturers were always the older ones. They knew what they were talking about and knew exactly how to deliver it. They only used chalk and a smile but they used it to great effect.

    By contrast, the younger ones that brought out the gadgets were hopeless.

    I really hope the teaching/lecturing profession is never affected by ageism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    University lecturers have to be teachers, researchers and administrators. Each lecturer has their own strengths and weaknesses. Personally, you cannot replace the interaction of a lecturer with a youtube clip.


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