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 172.

    I don't care if somebody is primarily a researcher who "just" has to fulfil his teaching hours quota. Nobody requests teachers/lecturers to be comedians or entertrainers; but if you can't be bothered or are not capable to put energy into it and speak in a monotonous boring way which has to send any normal person to oblivion, you have no place in front of any students.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    It would be interesting to know what current students think of lecturers and in particular what abilities the 'good' lecturers possess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    Be wary of Wikipedia. much of its content is inaccurate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Wikipedia is a fine starting point for studying and yes, 'lecturing' should have been replaced with engagement long ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    wikipedia is a useful springboard when doing a bit of R&D. However, it must never be used as a citable or reliable source. The gloomy outlook predicted by Wales is rather daft and self-serving.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    It won't be online learning that will "doom" "boring lectures", it will be tuition fees. Students are now customers and if the university does not provide value for money and provide a positive consumer experience, I can see institutions being taken to court for refunds, etc!

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Wales highlights just one way in which universities need to reform.

    With the exception of Oxbridge (where elite brains merit special treatment), universities should move to two-year courses with short holidays and more focus on employability. Technology has a part to play, as does the ability to sack poor staff.

    As consumers of an expensive product, this is what students will rightly demand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    Universities much change to accomodate online learning.
    Imagine a world where professors had to audition to participate in online lecture deliverance, where professors who were not thus gifted, concentrated on handling questions posed by students, where the cost of such education was affordable, where university-education was essentially available to everyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.


    "rather than training people for employment in industry." I agree about the administration point of view, should Universities really be *training* for Industry. Surely that should be a different type of role. I think that creative thinking, developing new ideas, pushing the boundaries, is what university should offer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Recorded lectures provide information. The key to a full educational model is to then utilise other technologies, such as live panel Q&A sessions, group wikis and forums to promote critical thinking, dialogue and knowledge sharing.

    In this fashion the lecturer doesn't have to repeat the same lecture year on year but instead uses that time to ensure understanding and discuss real world cases.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Technology opens up education for different learning styles.

    Having a recording of a lecture means that people who may have trouble taking full notes in a live session can pause the recording to make sure their notes are complete before continuing. Others may find it easier to take in information if they watch it while running on a treadmill.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    A few people have commented on guest speakers coming in and doing brilliant lectures.... now imagine if you had a recording that you could watch again and see all the bits you didn't take in the first time around.

    The recording can then continue to educate and inspire the students in the following years, who didn't have the opportunity to see it live.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    I had a teacher once who did not speak a word during the whole lecture... he would simply write on the blackboard and we were copying...

    What an utter pathetic waste of time that was!

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    I went for an interview for teacher training last week, one question was "Which of your teachers was memorable?"

    My reply "A history teacher who was a storyteller. She'd come in, sit down & talk for an hour, bringing history to life by her words alone." Not the OFSTED-approved bitty style at all :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    @157. rr6
    "Periodically we had guest speakers from industry and they knew far more about the subject than the lecturers. "

    I don't know about engineering, but can tell you that (while there were a very small number of exceptions) the chemistry lectures I attended were prepared and given by some of the most competent people in their field.

    Depends on the university you went to I expect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    @153 Ian
    "You go there to learn from the experts in your field of interest."

    Periodically we had guest speakers from industry and they knew far more about the subject than the lecturers. From my experience in engineering, it seems that too many lecturers just follow the course books and have little practical experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    @148: "They make wikipedia like a pub chat, not an encyclopedia."

    If wikipedia was like a pub chat it would be an improvement! At the moment it's like being lectured by the unemployed/unemployable. It will never be like an encyclopedia as its aims are different (basically, the aim of WP is to pump up JW's Wikia Corp. stock price - which he doesn't like to talk about much).

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    It won’t happen. Our shop has self-checkout machines. However, people don’t like to use them as much. The majority of customers prefer to line up and have a few words of chit-chat with me. Human contacts and feedback are very important to fulfill our psychological needs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Jim misses the most powerful part of the best MOOC - this is the interaction between similarly minded keen students. 'Social Constructivist Pedagogy'. We now have better 'media rich' content coupled to a wealth of social communications. Opencast Matterhorn allows students to send video cutting lists to hilight sections of longer videos. Happy Days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    @152. rr6
    "standard of teaching by lecturers was far below that of an average state secondary school. Tutorials were also a farce."

    Universities are not schools, you don't go there to 'get taught'. You go there to learn from the experts in your field of interest.

    There is no reason to expect an expert physicist (for example) to have a particular aptitude for teaching, but expert they are.


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