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To lecture or not to lecture: is technology reinventing the campus?

With technology changing the landscape of higher education, The Conversation is running a series “Re-imagining the Campus” on the future of campus learning. Here, Tom Cochrane outlines how technology is…

Is technology signalling the end to university lectures?

With technology changing the landscape of higher education, The Conversation is running a series “Re-imagining the Campus” on the future of campus learning. Here, Tom Cochrane outlines how technology is transforming the everyday lecture

In the plethora of debate about higher education in at least the last two decades, few issues have attracted the same level of attention as the effect and influence of digital technology. For good reason, of course, as there are no institutions, activities or businesses that are unaffected by such influence. In 2013 the global frenzy attending the mention of the word “MOOC” is the standout example.

But in the case of Higher Education the discussion is often superficial, repetitious and disappointing. It’s too often context free, and about being a university student and/or academic.

Technology prediction has an established pattern now, discernible in so many fields. It’s a three phase pattern: first, no sooner is a new capability or application described, than predictions about its utility start to propagate and flourish, driven partly by the trade literature and sales imperatives of the industry. Second, the imagined changes have a pattern of not arriving as forecast, and then attracting doubt and pessimism. And third, this in turn paves the way for a later serious misreading, or underestimation of the longer term impact of a particular innovation or group of innovations.

This syndrome is widespread, and has been represented in the technology literature by such well known models as the Gartner Hype cycle. It has many applications in university settings.

The belief that online education will replace on-campus studies is a long standing and unrealised prediction. One of the more conspicuous predictions was Lewis Perelman’s School’s Out: Hyperlearning, The New Technology, and the End of Education, which is astonishingly now over 20 years old.

But in the last 24 months there has been a new wave of debate and speculation about the great disruptor, “Online”. And the serious question is – is this a third phase revival?

Past arguments have failed to define and observe a difference between higher education and other forms of education and training. This essentially stems from a mistaken perception the university experience can be replicated online.

That difference is marked by the expectation that being at university will be engaging, personally challenging, and transformative of careers and lives.

The things that people look for, and pay for, in higher education are not to be ignored or diminished, and we should bear this in mind when re-imaginging the lecture and its future. The lecture has a long history of criticism and poor regard. There’s not a graduate who doesn’t recall poor and unengaging experiences – but there are some who may recall engaging, if not transformative experiences.

Long live the lecture? Teddy Rised/Flickr, CC BY

The issue is the lecture form in itself is not the problem. More, it is assumptions about standard length, the way it has developed as the basic component of the teaching role, and its apparent efficiency. An interesting twist in recent years is the rise of the TED lecture, the short, sharp, often inspiring monologue which is freely accessible online.

Most universities are engaged in attempts to improve their learning and teaching practices and environments. The advent of online creates a greater urgency to improve these practices. Traditional practices come up for justified criticism and review. The lecture as a form is part of this, but so are issues of course structures, semester timetabling, assessment methods, hiring practices, new approaches to student engagement, and course integrity.

Will then, the lecture endure? In some forms, yes, including online dissemination of great talks. In an intense debate in my own institution in recent years, decisions on whether to build new modern theatres or more immersive and flexible physical environments have been subject to intense scrutiny. The evidence suggests that while we, (particularly our students) will gladly abandon unrewarding lecture time, we will never abandon community, both physical and virtual. We will see the relinquishing of the lecture form as the core activity of “teaching” in many fields, but we will also need to provide for a role for the star performer: online, in the flesh, and both.

Read other articles in this series here.

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4 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Lardelli

    logged in via Facebook

    After being sent some literature on the wonders of online education by my uni's admin, I looked into the organisation that had produced the literature. It turned out to be an IT lobby group in Washington who are, of course, pushing for more use of IT technology in education (since education is seen as an economic growth area) and the examples of success given were limited and lacked detail. But our administrators have become so disconnected from the actual work of university teaching nowadays that is no wonder that they can be led by the nose by these lobby groups.

  2. Cris Brack

    Assoc Professor Forest measurement & management at Australian National University

    To me, the question is to lecture for what reason? Lectures started with "monks" reading out of the single copy of a precious book while candidates essentially acted as printing presses to write multiple copies of that valuable content. That is why "Readers" were highly respected positions in universities as they were the people trusted enough to read. But the modern role of the lecture has progressed. The success of the TED approach suggests that lectures are to enthuse - if enthused enough, the…

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  3. bill parker


    When I first went to University somebody asked me what I was "reading". I said something like "a John Le Carre book". But don't you read chemistry my questioner asked. Read chemistry? What? But that's exactly what I should have been doing, and not merely the set books, but anything and everything peripheral to the discipline.

    I saw limited (or zero) value in lectures. The first one in organic chemistry started with a lecturer writing the word "alkanes" on the board. Not long after he wrote…

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  4. Darryl Cloonan

    Social Worker

    Well there certainly are mixed views on this subject. I can recall some dull lectures (or was the material just too hard for me follow?), but also some where the speaker's grasp pf the material, ability to communicate it clearly and enthusiastically, and make me want to learn more and more, were simply wonderful. Isn't this just a 'horses for courses' argument?

    Online is better, or equally good, for some subjects, but others, eg. languages, humanities and probably other areas really do need the speaker's voice and presence. Many people find lectures dull because their attention span, ability to listen to, or just tolerate a sustained argument, are minimal, and the the device in their hand is just too tempting, I think, as a counsellor and occasional lecturer at universities, we're also dealing with a high level of distraction, and decreasing desire and ability to focus.