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Is the University lecture likely to be a victim of the pandemic?

Author: Dr Susan Smith, Associate Dean (Education and Students), University of Sussex Business School

Published: 18 Jun 2021

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Dr Susan Smith shares her thoughts on the future of traditional teaching.

The summer months of the academic calendar normally mark a period of reflection and celebration as our finalist students graduate in the presence of their proud loved ones and the faculty who have guided them through their studies. Meanwhile, on campus Masters students are working on their dissertations with the expert guidance of their supervisors. Academics take advantage of the opportunity to focus more fully on research and undertake planning for the upcoming academic year, including thinking about the lectures needed for the next semester.

What might be in store for 2021/22?

Of course, this is a far cry from June 2021 where we will be conducting virtual graduations and supervisions once more. Academic faculty and professional services staff are exhausted after over a year of disruption and adaptation. Yet it seems unlikely there will be much respite as Universities grapple with plans for academic year 2021/22. And there are question marks about the ongoing role of the lecture.

Should restrictions end as expected, over the course of the summer, many Universities are signalling a full return to in person teaching. To date, a handful of Universities have signalled that lectures will remain online along with assessments and in person teaching will take place in small interactive seminar groups. This acceleration to a blended delivery format has a number of advantages, enabling students to pace their learning and interact more fully with learning materials.

Pedagogical literature focused on the pandemic is just starting to emerge and may help us to apply the lessons learned to harness innovations that may otherwise have taken years to enter the mainstream practice of academics. The general trend to more flexible, student-centred pedagogies has been accelerated and is likely to continue as technology continues to facilitate a personalised learning journey.

Does this mark the end of the traditional lecture?

The pandemic has led to the intensification of the debate surrounding the place of the lecture in University education. This debate is not new and has continued since the 1960s, however the recent disruption has forced educators to engage with technology intermediated alternatives. 

The debate can briefly be summarised as follows:

  • The live experience is a key part of a lecture. It is argued that this cannot be replicated via recordings1
  • Lectures represent an efficient means of transmission of knowledge to large groups of students
  • Students retain their interpretation of the content from lectures and that further activities are required to consolidate learning2. This is supported by the findings of an early study of accounting education during COVID-19 where students reported that self-reflection activities helped to deepen their understanding of lecture content3.
  • Lectures have moved past passive transmission and many are dialogic and interactive, engaging students with the content and construction of knowledge4

Technology can assist educators to deliver content in different ways which may be more effective than the default reliance on the lecture as a learning tool. Educators now have experience of using different tools to deliver their teaching and this is likely to lead to re-evaluation of the design and content of lectures within University teaching.

Rather than a one size fits all approach to course design I believe we are more likely to see the emergence of signature pedagogies which are effective for specific disciplines and the student base. This is yet another example of how the pandemic has speeded up changes to how we do things for the benefit of both students and academics.

*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.

1https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/be-there-or-be-square-strange-art-lecturing

2Schmidt, H., Wagener, S., Smeets, G., Keemink, L. & van der Molen, H.. On the Use and Misuse of Lectures in Higher Education, Health Professions Education, Volume 1, Issue 1,2015, Pages 12-18, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hpe.2015.11.010

3Sangster, A., Stoner, G. & Flood, B., (2020). Insights into accounting education in a COVID-19 world, Accounting Education, 29:5, 431-562, https://doi.org/10.1080/09639284.2020.1808487.

4French, S. & Kennedy, G. (2017). Reassessing the value of university lectures, Teaching in Higher Education, 22:6, 639-654, https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2016.1273213.