Over 2020 and 2021, Covid 19 has regularly forced universities to move their lectures completely online. The word is some universities don’t want face-to-face in a lecture theatre to return. After all, everything that can be done in a theatre can be done equally well, if not better, online. Right?

I make my way to a large (tiered) lecture theatre to deliver my 50-minute lecture. Some students are outside waiting to enter. I wait and engage them in conversation.

We’ve reached the point in “Physics for the Life Sciences” where students consider the properties of lenses. On entering the theatre, every student takes a small kit containing several lenses.

We start with an experiment: I project an image of a candle flickering onto the big screen and lower the theatre lights. I ask each person to hold up a lens to intercept the light from the candle.

The students also hold up a piece of paper to intercept the light passing through the lens. I ask: what do you see? “A blur mostly.” Try slowly changing the distance between the lens and the paper. Now some responses change. While “a blur” is still the answer from some, others have found that a sharp upside-down flickering image has formed of the candle on the paper. How is that image formed?

Now we’re in business.

I bring up a ray drawing simulator on the theatre computer so we can explore image formation. Students are given a link so that they too can access the simulator.

Students proceed to measure and share with others the size and position of their images on the paper. I gather and display their data in a spreadsheet for all to see.

A student asks why the lens labelled “e” does not form an image (despite the student’s best efforts). More and more questions surface …

What can we take from this? This lecture had little to do with the transmission of content (a charge regularly laid against the lecture) and much more to do with practical engagement, involvement, exploration and explanation.

Could you translate what happened in this class to an on-line environment? Some of it. But the hands-on bits and the ensuing discussions (key to grasping the concepts) cannot easily be mimicked online.

My takeaway is that you don’t need an army of digital learning designers, “innovative” learning spaces replete with high-tech IT equipment, or hours designing some on-line experience that can be done just as well in a lecture theatre. A bit of imagination and an old-fashioned lecture space are all that is needed.

Les Kirkup is a visiting professor at the University of Technology Sydney. He was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2011 and the Education Medal of the Australian Institute of Physics in 2014.

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