April 23, 2014

The beginning of the end of the lecture hall?

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The conference in Orlando

University Business is a magazine that focuses on equipment and facilities, including IT and AV systems. UB thus has its pulse on key technology trends and developments in universities, many of which have important implications also for teaching and learning. Every year it runs an annual national conference and I attended this year’s conference in Orlando, Florida.

Redesigning classrooms for 21st century learning

It was an interesting conference, with several excellent speakers. One message became clear. In the words of Mark Valenti of the Sextant Group in UB’s June edition of its magazine:

we’re basically seeing  the beginning of the end of the lecture hall.’

In essence, new technology, hybrid learning and the need to engage students and develop core ’21st century skills’ are leading some institutional leaders to rethink the classroom and the way it’s used – and about time.

One of the best presentations I have seen for some time at a large conference was given by Tawnya Means and Jason Meneely of the University of Florida, where several departments have redesigned their class space to enable both formal and informal active group learning.  Small, mobile tables with ports for a range of mobile devices, and software that enables both instructor and student control over screen sharing and projection are used to support case-based, problem-based, project-based and collaborative learning.

Meneely quoted Winston Churchill who said: ‘We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.’ Meneeely claims that when faculty are presented with such use of space, they naturally adopt these more active learning approaches.

You can find details of one of their new classroom designs, the Innovation coLab, by clicking the link. Another redesign was to convert an old kitchen and classroom into an open cafeteria-based group learning area, with a breakout area for individual study, thus allowing students to seemlessly combine socializing, group study and independent study within the same overall space.

One thing that strikes me is how similar is the pedagogy for these more interactive classrooms to the constructivist small, group-based learning I was using as an elementary school teacher in Britain in the 1960s – plus ça change….

It is significant that both Means and Meneely come from design backgrounds, with Tawnya as the Director for the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment, and Jason as an instructor of interior design. There were presentations at the conference and articles in the June magazine edition that indicate that other institutions, including the University of Kentucky and Queensland University of Technology are rethinking the structure and layout of the classroom. In addition some other institutions, such as the University of Central Florida, have been doing this for years.

Roles for lectures in a hybrid world

I think it is premature to write off the lecture hall or even lectures. They have their value, but as with many technology developments, they will not disappear but find their niche within a richer pedagogical context. Some of the roles I see for lectures in a technologically-rich teaching environment are:

  • a lecture at the beginning of a course to set the tone and build a sense of community,
  • a lecture at the end of a course to pull things together, to provide a synthesis, or a sense of completion or to ask: where now?
  • a lecture in the middle as a check on where students are, what are the ‘sticking points’, and a realignment of expectations or resetting of students’ focus
  • a lecture for a research professor to synthesize/summarize his/her findings or the field in which they are researching
  • special occasions, such as analyzing a dramatic current event in terms of theories or principles studied in a course: why, how, what next, etc.
  • distinguished visitors who have something extra to add to a course or program.

I am sure that you can think of many others. (If so please hare them).

However, I think the ‘default’ mode of the lecture in terms of delivering the main course content as being the standard form of teaching will slowly disappear, as we apply more active learning principles and the power of technology to our classroom teaching.

One also has to ask for how long MOOCs can rely on the standard video-taped lecture as the core of their teaching, once more active learning penetrates the ivy covered walls.

For new, more interactive classroom designs to become more widespread though, we need to start building some good design models for hybrid learning, and especially for what we do in class when students can also study online. At least two universities in Florida, the University of Florida at Gainsville and UCF in Orlando, are showing the way.

Your homework

Do you have other examples of new classroom designs for hybrid learning that go beyond the flipped classroom, based on new hardware and software in the classroom? If so, please share.


Williams, L. (2013) AV Trends: Hrdware and Sofware for Sharing Screens University Business, June

Orlando sunset


  1. Alex Kuskis says:

    It’s amazing to me that some “experts” are only now announcing “the beginning of the end of the lecture hall.” Marshall McLuhan, still unacknowledged as an important commentator, if not theorist, on education during the ’60s declared the obsolescence of lectures as an effective pedagogy decades ago. Lectures have continued to be a primary pedagogy in education way beyond their usefulness because the environments of lecture halls have continued to be built and still persist as legacy technologies.

    “… just as the old mechanical production line pressed physical materials into preset and unvarying molds, so mass education tended to treat students as objects to be shaped, manipulated. “Instruction” generally meant pressing information onto passive students. Lectures, the most common mode of instruction in mass education, called for very little student involvement. This mode, one of the least effective ever devised by man, served well enough in an age that demanded only a specified fragment of each human being’s whole abilities. There was, however, no warranty on the human products of mass education.”
    - McLuhan, M., & Leonard, G.B. (1967). The Future of Education: The Class of 1989. LOOK Magazine. Feb. 21, 1967, 23-25.

    “The lecture is finished in the classroom.” – McLuhan, M. (1969). Counterblast, p. 72)

    • Tony Bates says:

      Hi, Alex

      Great quote.

      My worry is that while the lecture hall may eventually be replaced, we are still perpetuating the lecture model through new technology, lecture capture.
      Again like most technology, lecture capture has its uses in education, but MOOCs are just one example of how new technologies perpetuate old methods.

  2. Tom McDonald says:

    All of the research on student deep learning, transfer and application, resulting in advanced, sustained, individual performance improvement strongly and consistently states that one size fits all methodologies don’t work

    The event based large lecture is the worst offender

    We continue to embrace this medium, with all of the evidence against it, because it works best for us, we are resistant to change for the better and there is no incentive to change for the better

    Education must mean short and long term individual learning transfer and application and the lecture at best provides short term, superficial, initial individual, understanding which is soon forgotten

    The horse and buggy is lecture…we need to move into the motorized, personal vehicle, age

  3. Deborah Arnold says:

    Thanks for this Tony,

    I particularly like the scenarios for ‘new uses of lectures’.

    One of the biggest challenges in France concerns the sheer numbers of students in entry years – the lecture is still seen as the most efficient way of ‘delivering content’ to large numbers: efficient in terms of faculty time rather than effectiveness of learning, and this is one of our major obstacles. How to convince HE teachers to invest time in rethinking pedagogy?

    The project-based, collaborative learning in smaller groups is slowly gaining acceptance at Master level, but if anyone has success stories of how flipped classrooms and other scenarios work with large numbers they would be most welcome.

  4. The lecture hall is not the ONLY problem: the lecture is ALSO the problem…essentially, lectures are predicated on the concept of a teacher telling or explaining new information to a group–usually large. Lecture halls make *largeness* possible. Regardless of size, to have new information explained to you in a monologic form for an hour or so is usually not interesting, helpful or digestible. But when size kicks in, being able to interact with learners gets really challenging–it can be done, but takes skill…slides are usually dreadful–few use them well, so many lectures end up being “powerpoint karaoke”.

    At my university, we are currently working with teaching staff to replace longer transmissive lectures to short, visually engaging videos, preferably leading to learner interactivity. We are calling these Cloud Concepts because they should be focused on a concept, preferably with some animation or illustration. But often, we fall into the same old pattern–the video is predominantly a talking head. (Yes, seeing the speaker is great–it helps us connect with a person–but we can see so much more when it’s a person plus illustration of some kind). But we are making some progress (more info: http://www.deakin.edu.au/learning/course-enhancements-sandpits/from-lectures-to-cloud-concepts). I feel though that we are not as an sector learning from television: documentaries, for example, can be an in-depth explanation and illustration of a topic, and they are rarely a film of one person talking with a few slides thrown in. I am not saying lectures should be replaced by documentaries: but we should use the filmic principles to produce short engaging ‘bites’.

    I totally agree though, with large group meetings–these need not be lectures. At the beginning of a course, or half way through, it’s often great to get people physically into the one space. We humans do enjoy this. But this can be to hear general information, get a sense of camaraderie, make new connections, hear and see messages of a generic nature, even a short ‘presentation’ which is not really the same as most lectures–I would suggest we use such large group meetings for very little “content broadcasting”. We tolerated this in the 70s and 80s–lots of it was dreadful. But our constant connection, TV and a much more engaging screens on broadband-enabled mobile devices have driven our appetite for shorter, sharper messages. I believe we still have books and text books, PDFs and papers, short and long video resources that explain concepts to us–these are terrific. Our challenge is that, largely through habit, we are tempted to be the broadcaster ourselves, and talk at our learners. Yes, i know there are some teachers who can do this type of teaching in an amazing and inspiring way, but most of us can’t. We have known for years that lecturing as it mostly happens is not great use of anyone’s time–now we have called it a new name–flipped classroom–we are giving ourselves permission to act differently at an institutional level and in my view that’s a good thing. Let’s focus on teaching in ways that help learners learn–that’s the key.

    Enjoyed reading your post and others’ comment, thanks

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