Friday, May 15, 2020

Universities Should Not Plan a Return to Lectures-as-Usual

Recently US colleagues asked about plans for the return to the university campus for students, after COVID-19 lock-downs. The consensus emerging seems to be to provide for students remote online, as well as in the class at the same time. Classrooms would be equipped with microphones, cameras, screens and computers (many already are), so remote students could see and hear the instructor, as well as those in the room.

However, I will still be taking the laptop and web camera I have been  using for teaching at home, along as a backup. That might be a useful  approach for institutions which don't have all classrooms equipped for live video.

In Australia we are fortunate to receive reasonably consistent advice from local, state and federal authorities on COVID-19 measures. Some of this has the force of law, through health and safety legislation, as well as specific COVID-19 emergency regulations. However, there are currently no specific guidelines for universities (the ones for schools are clearly not applicable), so the closest is for workplaces.

A prudent approach, I suggest, would be to have staff return to work first, then small group teaching, and lastly large groups. However, there are some difficult legal and ethical dilemmas, particularly with large group teaching.

Conventional lectures, with large numbers of students, in a cramped lecture theater, probably pose the highest infection risk. Also this is the least effective form of teaching. A conventional face to face lecture is no better for student learning than watching a video. So there is no good reason to resume lectures, ever (I stopped giving lectures ten years ago). There will still be scope for a presentation by a celebrity guest speaker, and for interactive learning with a group of people,. However, I suggest universities do not plan a return to conventional lectures, with someone speaking for an hour to hundreds (most students gave up attending these years ago, anyway). Instead universities should start decommissioning, re-purposing, or demolishing, lecture theaters, to make way for flexible learning spaces.

ANU Marie Reay Teaching Centre
The ANU Kambri complex, opened in February 2019, provides an example of an alternate approach to large university teaching spaces. The Marie Reay Teaching Centre has six floors of entirely flat floor classrooms, with movable chairs and tables. This allows occupants to be more easily spread out, than in a fixed seating lecture theater. If conditions allow, the tables can be pushed aside and chairs arranged close togehter lecture style. During construction, I asked the engineers if the prefabricated manufactured wood panels allowed the building to be modified more easily modified than in a concrete building. The reply was that this would need just a structural engineer, and a chainsaw: in other words the building could be easily modified.

The adjacent Culture and Events Building has multipurpose rooms with retractable theater seating. At the push of a button the tiered seating retracts into the wall, leaving a flat floor space for chairs and tables to be placed. The foresight of those who planned these buildings is to be commended.

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