The lecture paradox

The lecture is one of the easiest teaching formats to ‘replicate’ online and one of the most high risk during COVID-19. So why do students appear to be missing on-site lectures so much when they can learn just as much from the online version?

The lecture as symbolic and shared

The on-site lecture is a potent metonym in our conceptualisation of ‘university’, especially for incoming students who are likely to have formulated their image of what university is from various fictional accounts in films and novels. Given this, arguing about the pedagogical effectiveness of the lecture misses the point. The lecture is better evaluated as a cultural symbol than as a learning opportunity. This is one of the reasons why lectures are still so popular in an era of easily accessible recordings and information abundance. 

More significantly, the on-site lecture is also a powerful shared moment. They are highly ‘Evented’ in a manner which is difficult to transpose into online spaces. Even an awful lecture will have a strong sense of presence and fellowship. In fact, a really poor lecture can feel like more of a shared experience than a good one – a collective act of survival tends to bring people together. 

A really awful online lecture or recording is alienating and lonely. There is little sense of connection and no post-lecture coffee to share notes over. This is not an online ‘problem’ in-of-itself, it’s more that a simple mirroring of face-to-face practices online tends to amplify the weaknesses of the original. The positive aspects of embodied co-presence are immediately lost. It’s also because online we often neglect to facilitate the informal moments which cluster around the formal moments, such as the lecture. We lose the way our physical environment is designed to encourage those connections.

Shared moments are the new scarcity

The lecture operates in the same sociocultural manner as many other collective moments we are dearly missing during COVID-19. Despite it being significantly more convenient to listen to music at home, that doesn’t stop us wanting to attend music festivals. Similarly, we still go to the cinema even though we have access to films at home. This is also, I suspect, the underlying reason why so many people recently rushed to ‘inessential’ shops in the UK. It’s not about access to the products, it’s about ‘shopping’ as a social activity. The same holds true with lectures, it’s not about access to the content it’s about the shared experience.

Both the music and the film industry have started to trust the immutability of our desire for these shared moments and, for the most part, do not withhold content (even with cinema the multi-platform release is becoming more common). They understand that engineering a false scarcity of content damages their reputation and have rebuilt themselves around the scarcity of shared experience.

It’s not shared if there is a lack of presence 

The principle of a shared experience goes hand-in-hand with the importance of presence I discussed in a previous post. It won’t feel like a shared moment unless we feel the presence of others which is why our approach to online teaching often feels un-Evented/un-shared/un-communal even when it’s synchronous. To counter that involves rethinking how we teach and avoiding the ‘practice mirroring’ replication of on-site/face-to-face modes.

The higher education sector has come to a keen understanding of this over the last few months and will hopefully re-think notions of attendance, timetabling and engagement in a broader, presence-based, manner. Even so, the humble on-site lecture (or similar) plays an important role in drawing us to the building. It  becomes the focal point for many other types of encounters in-and-around the formal session in a smooth manner which we still struggle to model in our digital environments. 

Making it worth turning up for ‘live’

I suspect we know that the lecture is not as much of a draw as live music or the big screen – the ‘live’ experience is perhaps too similar to the recorded version. This means that we need to work on our live presence (on-site and online), just as many bands have had to, and there are many techniques that can be employed. I’d argue that presence and good pedagogy go hand-in-hand. How can we expect our students to be engaged in something which is unengaging?

We need to refocus our idea of university around the importance of creating moments of shared presence to facilitate new connections – connections in our thinking and connections with those around us.