Thursday, June 11, 2020

Revise Guidelines for Social Distancing in Lecture Theaters

This is to suggest revising guidelines for social distancing in lecture theaters, to allow for 50% normal capacity. ARINA WHP Architects issued "Physical considerations in the operation of a university campus to meet Step 3 COVID-19 guidelines" (Version 1. 01, 26 May 2020). ARINA point out that it is not feasible to implement social distancing in most stepped lecture theaters and recommend that video lectures continue. Also it is pointed out that flat floor spaces can be more easily reconfigured. However, I suggest that the fixed seating in lecture theaters might be used to advantage to meet social distancing requirements.

The Australia requirement for 4 square meters per person is a general one to lessen the spread of COVID-19. In a lecture theater, people are seated, in fixed locations, facing one direction, mostly not speaking. Students are not exerting themselves physically and present for less than an hour. As a result virus spread will be minimized. Social distancing could be maintained in this setting by leaving every second seat empty. Each person would have an empty seat on either side, in front and behind them. The result would be that a lecture theater would have half its normal capacity.

I suggest this should only be a short term measure. In the longer term, most stepped lecture theaters should be decommissioned, as there are few learning benefits for students from this mode of teaching. More flexible classroom formats, which require more space for each student so they can learn actively, should be built. As a byproduct, this will allow for social distancing.

It cannot be assumed that COVID-19 restrictions will end any time soon, and there will be future pandemics. Also the provision of social distance will reduce the incidence of local outbreaks of colds and flu, thus saving the institution from disruption and staff sick leave.

Also I suggest Australian universities be required to offer all courses online, as an option for all students, as a condition of government funding. Universities should be funded for, and required to have, all teaching staff qualified to teach, at least to the level of a Certificate IV (as TAFE teachers already are). There is no reason to prevent students studying online, if they wish to. If properly trained staff are used, this is equally effective as face to face teaching.

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