Time to re-evaluate but not ditch face-to-face lectures

The increasing move towards a blended learning model in higher education has unleashed a heated debate about the future of the face-to-face lecture. Some believe that even when it’s safe for a full return to lecture halls, remote learning will remain the default mode of teaching.

In my view, it’s a mistake to assume the face-to-face lecture has had its day.

During the pandemic the sector has gained a wealth of experience in adapting to change. While COVID-19 forced institutions to make a rapid shift to online and blended learning, it also prompted fresh thinking about the whole concept of lectures.

So, could we keep the benefits of live group teaching while providing the flexibility of remote learning to better meet students’ needs?

It’s a theory we’ve examined in the school of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and we’ve made some interesting discoveries as a result.

Structure and flexibility

Many students find the start of their higher education journey challenging, particularly with the amount of self-directed learning expected and the time management required to do it effectively.

The students who struggle with the transition to university don’t lack passion for their subject and they are not reluctant to work hard. It’s simply a sign that these students haven’t yet had the opportunity to develop their independent learning skills.

Having witnessed the difficulties some students were facing, we explored new ways to help first-year students engage with online lectures and this led to the creation of the watch party.

The idea behind the initiative is that students still attend their timetabled lecture, but rather than the session being delivered live, we stream videos that have been pre-recorded using our video learning platform, Echo360.

During the session, the lecturer talks to students in real time via a digital chat channel and uses Q&A techniques and quizzes to engage with students and promote active learning.

This approach offers students a set time for lectures so they can organise their schedules more easily and keep on top of their work. We also record the watch party sessions so students who can’t make the planned lecture can watch it later. It’s available for students to access for their revision too.

In my view it’s the best of both worlds, giving students the flexibility of fully asynchronous learning with the routine and interaction of live classes.

Our experience with watch parties has reinforced the importance of recording live lectures even when we have fully returned to the lecture halls. Students gain the flexibility to access the content when they need it, but they also benefit from attending live sessions, and this is vital for students who are in the early stages of building their study skills.

Boosting student confidence

One of the key benefits of online lectures has been the use of a digital chat channel. In a traditional, in-person lecture it can be difficult to gauge how students are reacting, whereas the interaction involved online gives me as a lecturer a greater insight into my students’ views.

When we use the chat box, I have found that students are much less self-conscious about sharing their experiences of being LGBTQ or neurodiverse, for example. Students are also happy to share their opinions in a discussion and they’re more open to asking and answering questions than they would be in a large face-to-face lecture.

This opportunity for interaction genuinely adds value. It brings together the best aspects of the face-to-face lecture, but in a format that encourages students to take a more active part in their learning.

As a result, we are keen to continue using the online chat facility as face-to-face lectures return. It demonstrates that live sessions, even those which are didactic in nature, can strengthen connections between staff and students and help to build a cohesive learning community.

An inclusive approach

Before the pandemic, part of my role involved supporting academics in recording their lectures. I am optimistic that our experience with online teaching and learning will result in a deeper understanding of the benefits of providing lecture recordings where appropriate.

Recordings offer much needed flexibility. They are a second chance for students whose physical or mental health conditions prevent them from attending scheduled sessions and for carers who have to work to financially support themselves. Recordings also allow students who are still finding their feet in the university environment to avoid slipping behind.

However, recordings will never replace meaningful contact and interaction with staff and peers.

The face-to-face lecture is still very much part of the university experience, and it should stay that way. However, the time is right for the sector to make better use of technology to shape teaching and learning to the needs of students and academics.

By re-evaluating the traditional lecture, higher education institutions can offer students a more inclusive, interactive and engaging way to learn.

Dr Emily Nordmann is senior lecturer of psychology at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Nordmann is first author on “Lecture rapture: the place and case for lectures in the new normal”, recently published in the Teaching in Higher Education journal.