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 92.

    My best lecturer was my advanced maths teacher, he wasn't funny or entertaining, he just went straight into it, stern and brisk, but he was brilliant he had a presence, charisma and a passion for his subject.

    He wouldn't have made a good video but he was a brilliant teacher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Not all lecturers are boring, and it can be useful to have an opportunity to question him live. Still a good idea to expand the avilability of online video lectures, notes etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I have studied 'bum on seat' university, OU (TV programmes & post days), distance learning via VLE & MOOC: all have different strengths & weaknesses & there is room for all of them in the future of education. A lecture - whether delivered in person or as video - is just one part of the process. You may have seminars, tutorials, discussion boards, lab class... & hours in the library/online alone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Technology can have a part to play for sure, particularly in making learning more interactive. But just to replace existing in-person lectures with videos of lectures in every instance isn't the answer (may work for specific lectures). Also, the most effective students at Uni level are those that drive their own learning (including challenging the teachers) and technology will not change that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    I am a University lecturer in Mathematics. Online learning and technology are definitely useful but are by no means the magic bullet that will solve everything. It is simplistic to dismiss all traditional lectures as boring or outdated. I use slides for some courses (uploaded ahead of time) but answer as many questions as possible including things they should know from previous courses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Just finished 1-to-1 tutorial with excellent degree student.

    Attends lectures, seminars, tutorials, labs. Does his own reading, hunts out material that sometimes he tells me about. Great.

    Not a wikipedia copy/paste in sight.

    Would I employ this student in my business? Would I take him as a PhD student?

    Yes, I would.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    I studied English and French at Sheffiled in the late 70s/early 80s; the objectve then was to gain an education in subjects that you wished to study. I found it very interesting and lectures were very good. Student numbers were a fraction of what they are now, there was much more regular marked work than seems to be the case now (a lot more) and I enjoyed it. Thank you Great Britain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Knowing a lot and being able to enthuse your audience are very different things. In the near future students will have access to huge amounts of downloadable lectures given by good communicators. It won't happen too soon for most of us in education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Maybe I've been lucky, but I never found any university lecturer boring, the subject matter more than making up for any deficiencies in delivery. Even reading can be a struggle at times, but intelligent people can cut through the dross to the pearls that are beneath. Just the same, when we have new resources coming in all the time, it might be wise to see how they might be used effectively.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    So a Mr Wales, who is a business person with a business that is questioned with regard to accuracy by university professors, says universities are in trouble. Wow! I guess that means we can trust the folks on TV trying to sell us the "supersonic fryer" and the "wonder liquid" now then? Thanks Mr Wales for clearing that up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I once went to a "lecture" by Jimmy Wales - all about how he was going to revolutionise the search engine business - and take all the business away from google. Nothing ever really came of it though it sounded like a great idea at the time - a bit like this idea perhaps. I welcome open universities for all on the web - but I wonder when it will really be open for all...

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    52.A St Andrean in exile
    "Universities have lost the plot. They are obsessed with abstract research rankings and administration, rather than training people..."

    Imagine you are refering to the old style colleges who pretend to be universities to gain funding. Traditional universities will be around for quite a while yet

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Surely there is some argument for a blend of both 'worlds'? If a 'profs' strength is not public speaking then allow them to use other materials to get their point across - but don't replace them entirely. The interaction and direction with professor and students is vital in my experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Most university teachers are appointed for their ability to research and with little regard to whether they can teach (and professors are promoted purely on their research). Although this has nothing to do with the medium, a video of a good junior lecturer would be more valuable than most live lectures given by research-obsessed professors. Plus you could play back any bits you didn't understand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Jimmy Wales is the idiot that brought us Wikipedia - proof that you can waste space on the Internet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Some of my most intellectually stimulating times have been listening to lectures, an activity that both inculcates concentration and respectful attention, and allows for the listeners' objections, criticisms, disagreements, and questions. It rather prejudices the whole case to label the lectures to be eliminated as boring.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Can understand that from a society where the average attention span is on a par with a soggy flip-flop

    If it ain't all flashy, 'fun' and groovy it must be boring !?

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    One thing with the boring academic stuff is that they don't dance about shifting female authors out of the authors category and into a ghetto of women-only category, and then wonder what to do with the black ones, and whether the Muslim ones should go into a Muslim ghetto or a Muslim harem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Students who can't sit still and listen for 2 hours should perhaps be on a building site rather than at university. If a lecture by an expert on their subject is boring, it is because the idiot who is sitting there should not be there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Being serious ...

    Core issue here is the changing role of the university.

    Originally an instution primarily tasked with creating knowledge via research and scholarly activity, it was attended by a small elite, the cream of which then became the next generation of academics.

    Now many universities are just large schools.

    Wales is correct that this knowledge transfer can be done other ways.


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