Wednesday, 6 March 2013

In Teaching Naked, Jose Antonio Bowen argues that instructors at post-secondary institutions must learn to become curators of their students' educational experiences, so as to encourage them to participate more fully in the development of their own learning (Bowen, 2012). 

As a curator, the instructor acts more like a facilitator than a sage on the stage.  For Bowen, the lecture must therefore play but a minor role in the curator's toolbox.  He argues that most instructors who rely on lectures for learning do so by default.   Indeed, he goes further, and asserts that the vast majority of lectures are of modest quality, and some are entirely lacking in utility.  While he acknowledges that there is a place for lectures in learning, he believes they must be employed strategically, and only where it is clear that the context demonstrates they represent the best pedagogy.

Instead of lectures, Bowen suggests that instructors should focus on seeking ways to ensure that students are integrated into the learning process.  This means that in addition to communicating high standards, instructors must spend time establishing a supportive learning milieu, and guiding the way students learn, in order to achieve educational outcomes.  If instructors do not commit to making this type of change, he says, students will vote with their feet and retention rates will continue to decline as students opt for cheaper, and more relevant, online alternatives.

I use interactive lectures to deliver my law courses, and they are generally well received.  Many students like lectures as a delivery tool.  At the same time, I have had students who have clearly been bored during lectures, either because the format does not engage them, or the content is not challenging.

I also had the experience recently where I asked my students in a course to read the textbook chapters in advance of class, and to perform online quizzes so that their absorption of the content could be documented.  I also told them that class time would be reserved for student presentations and interactive discussions referencing the topic material outlined in the syllabus for that week.  During the course of the semester several students came to me and complained that I was not teaching them anything.  Several of them stopped coming to class.  I suspect that the reason was that they believed they could learn what they needed to learn on their own.  Still others – the ones who "got it" – enjoyed the deeper exploration of the curriculum subjects that the in-class discussions encouraged.

I was left thinking that one size can never fit all situations, that students come in all shapes and sizes, and that pedagogical theory will never provide a uniform answer that will cure all the flaws in a particular formula for the delivery of learning.

If student retention is the concern, there are many factors apart from the in-class experience that will determine if a student stays on and completes a qualification.  A summary of recent research suggests that between ten and twenty percent of post-secondary students do not complete their program of study, while others take considerably longer to complete than expected (Albert, 2010).  At Simon Fraser University, a 2007 report revealed that 6000 undergraduates entered the institution annually, but only 4000 bachelor's degrees were being awarded each year (Morris & Heslop, 2007).

Is the classroom experience the key factor in determining whether students will stay and complete?  Again, the research indicates that there are a number of additional factors affecting the ability, or desire, of students' to continue, including psychological, financial and familial stressors, many of which may have little or nothing to do with the format in which instruction is delivered.  Academic integration may only be one factor.  Others would include the extent the student is integrated socially into the institution, and the extent to which the institution offers support services to its students. 

Still other factors may include the age and cultural characteristics of the students that are recruited (Albert, 2010).  The latter is a significant criterion, as many of my students come from Asia and the Pacific, the Middle East, and the Caribbean.  For Chinese international students, for example, the learner-centred active participation model that Bowen champions for class is entirely foreign.  In most Chinese education, student work is individual, group work rarely occurs, essay writing is sporadic, the format is lecture-driven, and the focus of assessments is on exams (Zhang & Zhou, 2010).  Students reared in that sort of environment will have significant difficulty entering a flipped classroom, at least initially.

Does this mean that Bowen's remedy for lower retention misses the mark?  I do not think so.  What Bowen appears to be saying is that the way learning is delivered may mitigate some of the impact of the other factors I have noted when it comes time for students to decide whether they are being enriched in the classroom to the extent necessary to convince them to continue with their programs of study (Bowen, 2012).

As for the difficulty that arises when different students have different expectations about the way learning should be delivered, and the format within which they will experience their own education, Bowen encourages institutions to experiment with customization.  He also wants institutions to take risks.  In order to compete, he says, colleges and universities must leverage their best assets, and find a specialized niche.  They will need to offer something that sets them apart from their competitors and, ideally, offer it with less cost (Bowen, 2012).  All of that, I think, can be harmonized with the reality that different students have different needs.  Indeed, to act otherwise may simply ignore the problem.

While there may be several reasons, apart from the way learning is delivered, which may influence students to interrupt, or bring to an end, their participation in an educational program before completion, I cannot but agree with Bowen that institutions must leverage what makes them unique in order to improve the learning experience.  If so, it seems likely that some students, at least, will be induced to remain on track.

I also agree that there is probably a growing cadre of students, and parents who fund them, who will be increasingly sceptical of the value of a lecture-based approach to learning if costs continue to rise, and the content that is delivered is made available at less expense online.

At the same time, there are other students who have different expectations regarding their learning, especially those who arrive from offshore.

I think that teaching naked is an approach that has the potential to re-invigorate many existing post-secondary institutions.  This is due to the fact that a lecture-based approach often seems to underutilize the expertise of faculty, and the desire of most students to be enriched, notwithstanding the financial and other sacrifices they are making when they choose to attend at school.

Bowen appears to recognize these nuances when he suggests that institutions need to customize their learning formats to the needs and convenience of the students they attract.  In my own classes, then, it may be worth the effort to offer different types of learning formats in different sections of the course, making sure that the students who register are made aware of the distinctions.  For students who are more comfortable, at that particular stage of their learning, with content delivered live, the course may have more of a focus towards content delivery in class, with follow-up later.  For students more hard wired, technology may be employed to deliver content pre-class, with the integration of the content into higher orders of thinking reserved for face time with the instructor.

In the end, the delivery of learning appears to be about flexibility.  Institutions need to be cautious about grasping silver bullets; but they must learn to be nimble when considering the design or the courses, and the programs, they choose to offer.


Bowen, J. (2012).  Teaching Naked:  How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass Wiley

Albert, S. (2010). Student Retention – A Moving Target.  Council of Ontario Universities Discussion Paper.  Retrieved from:

Morris, D. (2007). Understanding Student Retention at SFU – Report #2.  Why Are Students Leaving SFU?   Simon Fraser University Institutional Research and Planning. 
Retrieved from:

Zhang, Z., & Zhou, G. (2010).  "Understanding Chinese International Students at a Canadian University:  Perspectives, Expectations, and Experiences," Canadian and International Education/Education canadienne et internationale:  Vol. 39:  Iss. 3, Article 5.  Available at:


  1. sure as heck hope this journal got a 5! Well done - I especially like the comment "learn to be nimble ...."

  2. Hi Robert,
    Very well written journal. I am always amazed by the material put forward by my classroom colleagues. I feel quite humble by what I read most of the time.