‘Time for reform’: The university lecture may not survive COVID-19

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Universities are keen to bring more students back to campus next year, but one hallowed tertiary tradition is unlikely to return until the pandemic is over, if ever.

COVID-19 rules mean the crowded lecture – at worst a professor droning on in front of a few hundred bored students, at best an interactive, dynamic learning experience – will be shelved indefinitely, replaced by online versions.

Some academics and students are worried live lectures will never return. “You don’t get that same face-to-face [without them], you can’t have a chat with the professor afterwards,” student Eliza Rubin, 20, said.

Sydney University student Eliza Rubin has been studying from home in Alexandria this year. Credit:Kate Geraghty

But others hope universities take the opportunity to put a broom through an outdated format, and create something better. “[The lecture] is not dead, but I think there’s pressure on it to reform,” said David Boud, director of the Centre for Research in Assessment at Deakin University.

University students have done most of their learning online this year. They watch recorded lectures, and do tutorials via Zoom or on chat forums. As universities adjust amid reduced budgets and redundancies, tutorial sizes have grown and the length of seminars shrunk.

The changes were driven by necessity, and were welcomed by many. At Macquarie University, where students could choose whether to come to campus, 55 per cent opted to stay home. Even before the pandemic, many students watched lectures online.

Nevertheless, many feel they are not getting the education they are paying for and expect the students arriving from high school next year – when the cost of many degrees will rise significantly – will feel even more short changed.

During her first two years at university, Ms Rubin, was used to credits and distinctions for her work. This year, “I’m at home, I’m putting more effort in, and I’m still not getting those kinds of marks,” she said. “I really don’t think I'm getting the same level of education.”

One academic – who wanted to remain anonymous – said online lessons were more stressful for academics and less rewarding for students. Tutorials were particularly difficult to run on Zoom, but the lack of live lectures was a loss for students, too.

“When I’m in a hall with 200 people striding back and forth, and I can feel the room and get responses and ask questions, that really works for me. I don’t think I’m a fan of [big lectures] all going online,” he said.

“But my sense is that [recorded lectures] will quite possibly be here to stay. It’s happened so quickly, it’s hard to know which way it’s going.”

Another said most academics would oppose killing off the live lecture.

“First year classes tend to have hundreds of students, but even then there are a lot of lecturers who try to get interaction going in the lecture,” he said. “In second and third year it becomes a bigger problem – that’s when lectures become more interactive. You can’t do that easily online.”

Professor Boud said most of the lessons being delivered by Australian universities would be better described as “emergency remote teaching” than online learning, as the latter required careful planning.

“[Online lessons] have to be carefully designed, you don’t have the same scope to adapt to go along,” he said. The teaching at universities in 2020 has been “put together in haste to deal with an emergency situation".

“You have to package up lectures that have been recorded and are too long, they’re not designed to be dealt with in that medium.” But academics had learned from this year, and many were adapting their teaching.

“We’ve been trying to move people away from the one-way transmissive lectures, they’re convenient for lecturers but not good for learning,” Professor Boud said. “Doing things online, you don’t have great big chunks of lectures, you have mini-presentations.

“I think what we’re going to see is a lot more blended [learning], even if we get back into classrooms, and this will be a real, important step forward.”

Next year, Western Sydney University and the University of Technology Sydney will mix online delivery and campus teaching, as will the University of NSW.

However, “where lectures work best online, they will remain online,” says a UNSW spokeswoman. “If health advice changes, we will respond appropriately.”

The University of Sydney also expects more students will return to campus next year, but large lectures will remain online. At University of Wollongong, smaller lectures will be held in person if they comply with COVID-19 regulations.

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