Monday, June 28, 2021

COVID-19 is the end of the in-person lecture: long live the in-person lecture

In "COVID-19 is no excuse to end the live and in-person lecture" Lyndon Megarrity (James Cook University) argues killing the lecture is a bad idea. In the same edition of  Campus Morning Mail (28 July 2021) Dr Rhiannon Lee White of Western Sydney University says that "Teaching: what works on and off campus is different". I suggest they are both wrong: what works on and off campus is the same, but lectures, live or recorded, are not a very useful part of either. I gave up lectures ten years ago and now design for online learning, with optional face to face components.

Lecturers Are Over-invested in Lectures: Students Are not

COVID-19 has forced learning online, but most students were not attended most lectures even before. Research shows that a face to face lecture is no more useful for learning outcomes, than a video conference, or a video, or reading a book. Universities are retaining tutorials, online or face to face, as these provide interaction and active participation from students missing from old fashioned talk and chalk lectures and their modern vid-and-slide equivalents.

There is no conspiracy from vice-chancellors to kill the lecture to save money. Given the sunk cost in the stock of lecture theaters, there are few short term savings from leaving the idle, as compared with mostly empty, as they were before COVID-019.

Lectures can be isolating for students, who sit in a big room with people who all appear to know more about the topic than they do, thus reinforcing the impostor syndrome rampant at universities. Students don't get to know each other during lectures, as they are required to sit still and be quiet while the lecturer talks. If they ask a question they risk ridicule from the lecturer in front of their peers, so most do not. 

The realization which dawns on students at university is that you are, mostly, on your own. Unfortunately university, through marketing materials foster a myth that it is a happy mutually supportive environment, with professors helping each student individually. This worsens the anxiety for the students who therefore feel they must be dong something wrong. With a class of hundreds of students, no professor can give all the students individual attention. There is no substitute for well designed course materials, supported by tools and tutors, to help each student with their study. This ca be aided by group work (which students hate, but is good the them).

It is certainly easier for lecturers if all students are forced to attend lectures on campus. However, even without a deadly global pandemic, there are reasons why most potential students cannot attend a campus, and never could. Forcing students to class is effectively saying: "If you are rich, privileged, live in a city, do not have a job, do not have children or others to care for, or other community responsibility, then sure you can come to university". 

One of the dirty little secrets is that most Australian university lecturers are not qualified to teach and would not be permitted in front of a class at a school or TAFE. Standing up and talking to a class is only a very small part of teaching and one of the lest important and least effective. Lecturers who take the time and trouble to learn to teach will discover there are many more effective ways to do it. 

No Need to Change Learning and Design

As Dr Lee White points out that, as terrible as COVID-19 has been, it provided an opportunity to rethink learning design. This rethink moves the emphasis away from the classroom, physical or virtual, out to the wider world. However, this is a less which those who teach professional skills, such as computing and engineering already knew. While theory can be covered in a classroom, or better still online. Students need to interact with outer students, with experienced professionals and with clients. 

As Dr Lee White notes, the key approach for a more hand on form of learning is asynchronous. The instructor explains to the student what they need to do, provides tools and then lets them try to do it. The student then checks in regularly, to see how they are doing. But this is not really about on campus or online, it is about an approach to teaching.

In 2008 I had the good fortune to be asked to design a professional development course on green computing for the Australian Computer Society. I documented the design process in 21 blog posts and a conference paper. The course was first delivered in 2009 and was later offered through the Australian National University,  and Universities Australia. It is currently offered by Athabasca University, Canada. This is in asynchronous mode, with no video conference and no face to face lectures. I still design courses much the same way, but with face to face or videoconferencing, where possible, as an optional extra. 

As an experienced university lecturer, the idea that my lectures were about the least useful part of a student's education was hard to accept. It was only through years of formal training, where I became a student (of education), experiencing alternative techniques, that I really understood what to do. We need to give university lecturers that learning experience. 

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