By LYNDON MEGARRITY
The in-person university lecture is on life support. Many tertiary decision-makers and lobbyists for e-learning appear to be urging the university sector to pull the plug on face-to-face lectures. COVID-19 has encouraged on-line learning, but opinions among both students and staff are divided on maintaining a “real-time” learning experience on campus.
In displaying a preference for the return to live tutorials while encouraging lecturers to pre-record lectures and perhaps re-use them in subsequent years, officialdom has generally avoided reflecting on the benefits of retaining face-to-face lectures, especially, but not exclusively, for undergraduates fresh out of school.
In my view, the live lecture is a tradition worth keeping. At its best, the lecture is the “coming together of the tribe”, enabling the key ideas of the course and the assessment to be discussed in more depth. Ideally, students learning a subject should feel part of a collective group studying history, English literature, mathematics etc. at a university, and forge links with other students from different backgrounds.
A recorded lecture cannot acknowledge the prior learning experiences of students and allow them to become part of the discussion. By its very nature, the recorded lecture is the enemy of spontaneity. It cannot take into account a blank look from the class, signifying that the lecturer may need to explain a point in more detail. It certainly cannot incorporate the news of the day, which might make what seems an abstract theme more “real” to the student.
After several years of face-to-face schooling, the message which students receive from recorded lectures and other on-line materials, probably not intentionally, is that “you’re on your own”. While there are many on-line tools and links to resources offered on-line, it is no substitute for the feeling that someone cares about the course you are doing and is prepared to offer guidance in person.
What about live lectures on-line? The screen is a barrier to effective communication and creates an artificial, overly formal atmosphere which some try and fail to overcome by gimmicks such as allowing students to write messages which can become distracting and quickly drift “off-topic”. It is also fatally easy to get distracted by the comforts of home. I feel that learning is better and more effective when everybody is “present” in the room, feels part of the one group, and the teacher can respond to the moods, preferences and questions from the class.
If the live lecture is to be taken off life support and return to its rightful place as a key part of the university experience, what is to be done? The cliché that students have “voted with their feet” and abandoned the lecture is true to some degree, but universities have allowed it to happen. With “everything” supposedly on-line, including recorded lectures, the young undergraduate is naturally tempted to seek more hours of part-time employment or put off learning until “later”—“later” for a sizeable cohort soon becoming “too late” for good marks.
University leaderships need to send a clear message that they value the student presence on campus as learners. Lecturers may also need to consider their teaching and methods of engagement, possibly with the assistance of formal training. Many were and are effectively plunged into the deep end as lecturers/tutors/markers as young graduates, without much support in a culture which still values research and grants more than the teaching side of things. There is a need for research about the best kind of teaching for young adult learning.
Blended learning has a role to play in Australian universities, but on-line learning on its own should not be the only “choice” offered, nor must students and staff compulsorily “embrace” it. I still regard the live lecture as important, and the temporary issue of COVID-19 should not be used as an excuse to set it aside for all time. Ideally students need to feel connected to their courses in a visceral way and to make meaningful contact with staff and fellow students. The abolition of the live lecture means one less opportunity for tertiary staff to “make a difference”: to personally encourage and build up the next generation of intellectual contributors to Australian society.
Lyndon Megarrity has had experience as a tertiary teacher over several years. These are his personal reflections on the live lecture.”