Video lectures’ uses extend past classroom

On a bleak and bitterly cold night in the middle of January, 7,000 mathematicians descended onto Boston.

The reason: the Joint Mathematics Meetings, the largest professional gathering of mathematicians in the country. The conference filled out almost every room in the three-story Hynes Convention Center and spilled out into the special-events rooms of the adjoining hotels; the directory of talks alone — just listing the title, location, time and speaker — was a tome almost 300 pages long.

Events like these, though most on a much smaller scale, are a necessary and common part of academic life. We think interesting thoughts, we write them down, and we publish papers. But as a form of discourse, papers are not great. We need to talk about our ideas as well; we must say all those things that professionals aren’t supposed to say in a professional paper in a professional journal; we need time to conjecture, to hypothesize, to provide the big picture, to talk about nuance and to discuss things on an informal basis.

So we hold conferences. A multitude of gatherings on a smaller level occur throughout the year, some so specialized and local they only have a few dozen attendees, if that. On a smaller level still, departments invite speakers from other universities to visit and give a talk, with travel and lodging paid for by the university itself.

So ubiquitous are these events that the average research grant includes some money to support travel to conferences; and large research universities, such as the University of Illinois, are expected to host some conferences and support invited speakers for the betterment of the academic community on campus.

But, as systems go, this is not the most efficient.

Just the other day, I received an email notifying me of a talk by noted mathematician Peter Sarnak … in Carbondale. As much as I would love to see Sarnak, it’s quite a trip to make to see one person give one talk.

There are simply far more good talks out there than are financially feasible to attend.

And then, last week, as I put the finishing touches on my column on the impact of online lectures for students, I found myself asking, “Why stop there? Why not also talk about how the research side of campus can benefit from online talks?”

(The short answer being that there’s only so many words I can put into a single column before my editor gives me the look.)

Certainly there are clear benefits to the research community to streaming or recording these kinds of talks. It makes excellent presentations available to a far wider audience.

And it also benefits society at large. One of the great struggles in academic circles these days is communication with the media; many researchers content themselves with just doing research and leave the dissemination of information to others. Complex ideas then get misrepresented, intentionally or not, and leave the public misinformed. The Canadian government has recently come under fire for restricting journalists access to government researchers, delaying interviews on important material until after they have faded from relevance.

If instead talks were made widely available, journalists and the interested public could get a more dynamic presentation of what would otherwise be an arcane and indecipherable research paper.

_Joseph is a graduate student._