Passe, Passe le Temps
A lecturer reminisces: “What luck! What enormous, good fortune! As a new staff member, I have been afforded the signal honour of delivering my first ever large lecture at 9 a.m. on the first Monday of term. Standing at 8.55 a.m. looking out over a sea of freshly scrubbed faces my mouth is dry, my palms moist, and my stomach in my throat. It did not used to be like this.
Not so very long ago, I was on the other side of the curtain, sitting in blissful ignorance of the inner turmoil playing out mere feet away. I felt then that this was my proper place in this setting – sitting, a face amongst the crowd, but never standing at the front, all eyes on me. Now, as the clock strikes 9, I stride forward and, for the first time in my career, tap the microphone (which fortunately works) and say in as convincing a voice as I can muster, “Let’s make a start”.
As I sit writing this reflection many years later, I cannot believe the speed of the passage of time. Nor do I like to admit that despite the experiences and tricks of the trade developed in the intervening years, there is still an echo of the uncertainty of that first lecture every time I step to the lectern.”
Arrivé au Présent!
For some of you dear readers, this will sound like an alien experience, for it is true that some take to the lecture environment more readily and naturally than others. Yet, for the vast majority of you, we suspect some if not all of these sentiments will resonate. Love them or hate them, traditional lectures have been the crucible through which the vast majority of legal academic careers have been forged. However, we now stand on the edge of a precipice where the once unimaginable is being actively considered across many institutions: The end of traditional chalk-and-talk lectures!
This is a move that has in truth been slowly developing for many years. A great many colleagues have never found the delivery of lectures to be personally rewarding, and still more have made compelling arguments in favour of other more contemporary and technology-driven methods of communicating the same material to students. The formats quite often put forward as part of these arguments focus on small group and student led learning sessions, rather than large group lectures where students are presumed to be passive.
The emergence of COVID-19 and the seismic shock across the sector has very much played into this narrative with the wholesale abandonment of face-to-face teaching and adoption of technology driven alternatives delivered in small seminar sized virtual environments. The “lecture format” has been shape shifted into the delivery of bite-sized podcasts, for the most part pre-recorded, while new terminologies which try to capture this process have become common place; for example, the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous teaching.
It is perhaps for this reason that the apparent demise of lectures has been met with relief by some, horror by others, though indifference by many. But what is it about lectures that leads many to believe they no longer have a place in the brave new world tempered by the experience of the pandemic? Is it that lectures are seen through a prism that casts them as “traditional” and thus not in keeping with a technological age where wonders can (occasionally) be performed online? Is it that they represent a dedication of resources (timetabling and space in particular) that new approaches to constructing learning can help avoid? Moreover, given the tension manifest in the past year between student expectation of campus-based learning (in which lectures would certainly have featured) and the socially distanced and sanitised reality that emerged (all too briefly in some places), is it in fact too early to speak of the “death” of lectures?
Plus ça change….
The reality is, of course, somewhere in between all these possibilities. Many Universities are planning for a number of different outcomes, depending on what shape the latter stages of the pandemic will take. Calls have come for aspects of online delivery to be retained, just as views have been expressed about how face-to-face teaching might take place. The truth is not completely certain and we would expect that many institutions will steer a prudent course between wholly restoring face-to-face learning and wholly abandoning the online world.
In this fevered debate, we urge the sector to think about the role and place of lectures. We believe they have an ongoing legitimacy as a learning methodology which should remain in consideration alongside emerging delivery methods. We also believe that large scale lectures can themselves be as innovative as any other means of delivery (for example, our own radioDMU transition was informed directly by our face-to-face lecture style, including team teaching). Thus, even if compelling arguments exist for a broadening of the delivery methods used, something we can subscribe to, the value of traditional lectures must surely still have a place in the pedagogical landscape.
Crucially, we are of the view that lectures are a distinguishing feature of the University experience – indeed they are the hallmark of university education and students expect them. Nowhere was this truer than in the debate over whether online teaching represented more or less “value for money” than traditional methods. However, it is not just the “worth” of lectures as a form of knowledge transfer that is at stake. There are many intangible benefits to the lecture structure.
For example, students rely on lectures (and their timetable in which they are located) as an anchor around which they structure their week (giving them valuable experience of and skills in time management and discipline). Lectures facilitate social interactions with their friends and classmates and as an incentive to attend campus and other smaller group sessions such as seminars. In these ways, they also directly contribute to the development of cohort identity. Having spent a year trying to replicate the holistic experience of students with the University, we should be more cognisant of the role lectures play in enabling student engagement.
In the last analysis, we think that there is something of a false narrative condemning traditional lectures as being seemingly “old fashioned”. The lure of modern technology and what it can potentially achieve is great. We are no Luddites, though. Living through a period in which technology became the sole focus for keeping strong the ties that bind between the University and the students, we became used to technology, we lived technology, and (on occasion) we loathed the technology! The reality, however, is that lectures are just another form of technology, less chalk-and-talk these days, and more shiny projections, live links to the Internet, video capture and sound-bites. As such, the reality of lectures is that they are reinvented and repurposed constantly with whatever technology is at hand.
It is also worth remembering what the word “University” means: it means “community”. In this light, one of the greatest foci of communal experience, the lecture, is what helps make the University. To lightly abandon it, for no other reason than a technological whim, would be to undermine what University means to many.
Dr. Russell Orr & Dr. Paul Omar
De Montfort Leicester Law School
 See Chris Stokel – Walker, “The Netflixisation of Academia: is this the end for university lectures?” (The Guardian, 4th December, 2019), available at <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/dec/04/the-netflixisation-of-academia-is-this-the-end-for-university-lectures>.
 See Guy Daly and Andrew Turner, “Leaving Lectures Behind Makes Sense for our University – here’s why.” (THE, 3rd March, 2021), available at < https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/leaving-lectures-behind-makes-sense-our-university-heres-why>.
 See Carol Rolheiser, Kathleen Olmstead, and Kelly Gordon, “Goodbye lecture halls, hello active learning spaces” (Harvard Business Publishing, Classroom management blog, 3rd October, 2019), available at < https://hbsp.harvard.edu/inspiring-minds/goodbye-lecture-halls-hello-active-learning-spaces>.
 See John Ross and Anna McKie, “More universities planning to drop lectures after pandemic” (THE, 7th January, 2021), available at < https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/more-universities-planning-drop-lectures-after-pandemic>.
 See Josh Sandiford, “No room for you in lectures, top universities tell first-year students” (The Observer, 15th February, 2019), available at < https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/feb/15/students-in-top-universities-told-no-room-for-you-in-lectures>.
 See Julia Buckingham, “Packed lecture halls won’t return soon, but students can still go to university” (The Guardian, 3rd June, 2020), available at < https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/03/packed-lecture-halls-wont-return-soon-but-students-can-still-go-to-university>.
 See Russell Orr and Paul Omar, “Radio DMU: A Study in On-Line Student Interaction” (ALT Blog, 5 June 2020), available at: <https://lawteacher.ac.uk/uncategorized/radio-dmu-a-study-in-on-line-student-interaction/>.