I look forward to the return of lectures because they have always been so much more than the imparting of information.
They have been part of university education for many decades. In the current climate, with university teaching forced to be online, their value has been questioned, e.g. Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins writing “Who needs a lecture hall when you can sit in Starbucks with a book and a laptop?”.
I gave my first on-line classes soon after the Easter break. I found them to be miserable affairs. I sat in our spare room (a quiet, pleasant and productive place to work) and spoke to my slides on my computer. The only evidence of my students was the participant list on the right hand side of my screen. I received a small number of questions on the on-line chat. In the class, we ran computer practicals – also remotely – with a few more questions and some useful screen sharing with postgraduate demonstrators to sort out problems. And I got good feedback from the students. But I found them deeply unsatisfactory
The truth is that much of the purpose of the lecture is not to impart information. The question “who needs a lecture hall” could have been asked long before the advent of multi-person video conferencing and mobile network technology. We already had books: technologies can impart information from one person to many others in different places and different times, synchronously or asynchronously. In fact, when I started my first job as a university lecturer, I did ask exactly that question: who needs lectures when you can get the same information from reading a book – and the answer is pretty obvious. Human contact.
The lecture puts people directly in touch with each other. Students have direct contact with their lecturer, and the lecturer has direct contact with the students. They (we) ask each other questions. As a lecturer, I look at my students as I teach – I can see the light in their eyes if they are understanding what I am saying – or the blank looks when they are not – and I need to give a different explanation. Sometimes I get them to the front to help show complex ideas – my favourite being explaining the minus sign in the advection equation by getting a line of students to do the Mexican wave. And students have direct contact with each other. They ask each other questions and give each other explanations. In my computer practicals, they work together (informally), supporting each other, and ideally learning more from each other than they do from me.
And it is even deeper than that. The act of going to a lecture course is a shared learning journey. Attending the same time and place is a powerful experience in of itself that binds the experience of the people, the place, and the content together, so that the knowledge and experience of learning sits so much deeper than if someone reads a book (or follow online content) alone.
These human elements are very hard to reproduce on line, although I will try my best if/when I have to teach on-line next term (I have some ideas).
So what about the future when we can return to face-to-face? One analysis I heard (in relation to primary school but just as relevant to universities) was from the educationalist Professor Roy Pea. He produced a quadrant map of formal vs informal learning in formal vs informal spaces.
Traditional lectures fit into formal learning in formal spaces. In fact, much of what we have traditionally produced in university frameworks is about ‘formal leaning in formal spaces’: lectures, seminars, workshops, laboratory practicals, computer practicals etc.
Recorded lectures and our new on-line content is about formal learning in informal spaces. Even before digital technologies and online content, we would produce problem sheets or reading lists; these were just as valuable, if less celebrated and talked about.
The physicality of universities also allow for informal learning in formal spaces. Groups of students sitting in libraries, common rooms or halls of residence discussing their work, or what they have just heard.
Informal learning in informal spaces is perhaps least acknowledged: reading a popular science book outside of your main discipline just because it is interesting, or being in a pub or cafe with some university friends studying different subjects and talking about different ideas.
|Formal Learning||Informal Learning|
|Formal Spaces||lectures, practicals, workshops, laboratories||Discussions in libraries, common rooms, student halls|
|Informal Spaces||On-line content, problem sheets, reading lists||Outside reading, chats in pubs and cafes|
What is clear is that these are all complementary – and that a good university educational experience will encompass elements of all four. I hope that one of the things that shakes out as we return to a new normal at universities is the value of all these elements: new on-line methods of teaching will be a valuable complement to, but never a replacement of, face-to-face teaching. Remote teaching provides access to different tutors and student groups, and I hope will stay, but will never provide the richness of experience of gathering together students and teachers into a bricks-and-mortar university and its informal surrounding spaces.