Thursday, June 04, 2020

The Lecture is Dead, Long Live the Lecture

Prof Patrick Prendergast.
Image source: Trinity College.
I listened with interest on RTÉ radio's Drivetime programme to Professor Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity College, discussing the re-opening of Trinity for the next academic year. He is a sensible Wexford man who tells it as he sees it, and points out that the inevitable loss of revenue, due mostly to an expected huge drop in foreign students, will affect not only Trinity, but the entire third level sector. However, I was most interested in his comments about how Trinity will deal with social distancing and classes in the coming academic year. Clearly, we cannot have packed lecture theatres and maintain social distancing. He did offer a "hybrid" model, where a lecture might be held in a theatre with just a few students, and that it would be streamed on-line at the same time. A good idea?

I'm not sure - I can see both positives and negatives. It doesn't make sense to me that a lecturer should walk to (say) a 100-seater theatre with just 20 students, while the remaining 80 students access the lecture on-line. Why not go all the way and just do the whole lecture on-line? No need to worry about social distancing. No need for a technician to be available. No need for an older (and therefore more vulnerable) lecturer to be present in a room where there are younger (and therefore less vulnerable) students present. No need to sanitise equipment like the lectern PC keyboard and mouse after every lecture. No need for a Teaching Assistant to deal with on-line questions. On the plus side, a hundreds of years old tradition of delivering a lecture to a room full of students will at least be partially maintained. And of course there is the extra-curricular activities that make college/university such an enriching learning experience.

An empty Lecture Theatre.
Image source: The Atlantic.
I had some lecturers in my time in Trinity (1979-1987) who, quite frankly, were poor teachers. All they did was come into the lecture theatre, talk at us for 45 minutes, and leave. Some just read out their own notes, while others used the available technology at that time (overhead projectors and/or slide projectors). Even today, I know that many lecturers (not just in Trinity) feel that they should still do the same - the only difference is that PowerPoint is used instead of a projector, and notes are now on Moodle. If this is all you do, there is no difference to student learning whether they are watching you in a lecture theatre, or on a computer screen. It is my sincere hope that the Covd-19 virus will kill this type of lecture. The challenge is to make the on-line lecture into a high class learning experience, and to motivate students to learn while doing so. Topics for another blog post!

Patrick Prendergast does value the learning experience of attending university, as I do. At the end of the interview he tells us that "we shouldn't tell a generation you're not going to have that type of experience, you have to stay at home - it's kind of incumbent upon us to do the best we can, recognising all the difficulties we have with public health, to ensure that our young people can have the kind of education that we had, and that we act appropriately to the constraints that are upon all of us in universities". 

Maybe the lecture is not dead after all?

You can hear Professor Prendergast's interview here.

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