Chaos and calm in the lecture theatre: Transforming the lecture by creating and sustaining interactivity at scale part 1

The use of lectures has been a long debated practice in the design of teaching and learning in higher education, despite its relatively ubiquitous status as the at-scale pedagogy de rigueur for most institutions (see Webster, 2015; Gibbs, 1982; and Nordmann et al., 2021 for some examples). Successive waves of trendy and often transient pedagogical change have challenged the efficacy and future of the lecture (see flipped learning for example), and yet it continues to thrive as one of the most dominant aspects of the modern education experience. It continues to be one of the defining stereotypes of the university journey, reinforced in popular culture, and one where expectation does not equal reality (see Schiel et al., 2018).

There have been passionate defences of ‘traditional’ lectures highlighting how they provide structure, scaffolding and contribute a sense of identity and belonging as a university student (see French and Kennedy, 2017). Even in the wake of an experience of unprecedented potency in the form of the pandemic, where lectures were replaced en masse with video conferencing, chunked content and asynchronous broadcasts, the central tendency momentums of higher education have reinstated the lecture form, reopened closed lecture theatres and have institutions dusting off the cobwebs from lecture recording platforms (see Robson et al., 2022 and Evans, 2022).

The increasing effectiveness of broadcast technologies, the growth of lecture recording as both a study-aid and a ‘value-add’ for students (Secker, Bond & Grussendorf, 2010) and the rise of scale as a business model in higher education has further entrenched the lecture as both an economic and logistical necessity (Schlegelmilch, 2020). The educational benefit of lectures has often been oversold by hyperbole, tradition, or anecdotal assertions of student demand and its role in defining a proper and expected university experience (see Wong and Chiu, 2019). The practice of lecturing has strayed away from its Greek celebration of the skills of oratory and its representation of performance and theatre (Mcleish, 1976) and has become magnified, multiplied and rote, with the content supported by vendors and their textbook aligned PowerPoint materials provided as a fillip to specify said book.

The larger the lecture gets, the harder it becomes to engage directly with students and more importantly, to support engagement between students. Lecture recording systems, purchased by universities originally to help students recall and encourage deeper learning, can easily replicate the experience of being at the lecture, especially if the quality of the lecture is repetitive and didactic. Depending on your definition of scale, large lectures frequently need to be repeated multiple times in a week to ensure all students in the cohort have access to an ‘in-person’ experience. In some institutions, they have utilised overflow rooms, with the lecture broadcast synchronously to another large lecture theatre, with little opportunity for interaction from a generally disengaged student populace (Exeter et al., 2010).

The student experience in lectures in these contexts can become receptive, informed by broadcast pedagogies with student behaviour driven by browsing habits, speed watching and passivity. Interaction is one-way, between the teacher as the performer and the students acting as the audience. Intra-audience interaction is thereby shunted to messaging apps, social media or in those pre-digital days, notes shared between students, all acting as an unedited, unfiltered but efficacious back channel which frequently offered positive support for learning (or not sometimes!). These models of interactivity are disconnected from each other, reliant on the informal networks that have formed within a class at scale, or potentially isolating those who have not yet formed their connections. 

The challenge of interactivity at scale

Arising time and time again in both institutional and pedagogical contexts are the challenges to the primacy of the lecture in the design of higher education teaching and learning. And in equal measure we get the passionate defence and the disruptive rebuttal. They have worked for centuries, people say. They have a place in the finely balanced ecosystem of higher education to provide content, offering an oratorial perspective on the complexities of disciplinary knowledge, they argue. Listening is a virtue that students need to acquire, as Webster (2015) argues citing both Vygotsky and Freire in the process to defend lectures. They are an archaic and arcane model of teaching not suited to the 21st century university and its flexible cohorts of students, the disruptors argue. Kalantzis et al. (2020) argue that  “sitting in classes and listening to lectures is an absurdly sub-optimal cognitive load for today’s students who on their personal devices have become habituated to designing their own information feeds then skipping through their messages” (p. 52).

As early as 1890, Max Muller writing in the New Review observed the controversy around lectures noting quite presciently that “…the system of imparting instruction by means of lectures, has for some time been subjected to an uncompromising criticism… first of all, most lecturers are too long. A whole hour is long, even for a sermon…. secondly, our audiences are generally too large.” He argues that a good lecturer is not one who teaches facts, rather their object “…is to teach how to master the facts, how to arrange, how to digest…” He argues that a good lecturer is not afraid to engage in any discussion or answer any question on their topic and are certainly not afraid to say, ‘I don’t know’. In the traditional lecture mode, the student has limited opportunities to exercise agency over their learning, other than through attendance. They cannot influence the structure, pace, absorption, level of challenge, intersections, and connections of the information they are asked to engage with. As we move the content that benefits from the repetition, pacing, didacticism and the virtues of listening to asynchronous, chunked multimedia, we need to replace that face-to-face time of the lecturer with opportunities to engage, connect and experience at scale. To use the capabilities of the crowd to trigger transitional activities and experiences that engender more than remembering disciplinary knowledge; and as Muller noted, to arrange (application in the modern parlance) and digest (reflection).

So why do we talk about interactivity in lectures?

The critical challenge for designers and academics when discussing what do with the lecture as a form of economical, at-scale teaching is the challenge of creating and sustaining effective interactivity, both between students and the teacher and between students themselves. There is a large corpus of evidence arguing for the efficacy of sociality, connection, active learning, and interaction in facilitating and catalysing deep learning (summarised in several blog posts published on this blog HERE and HERE). The design and delivery of tutorials and workshops has embraced this pedagogy at much smaller group sizes.

The design of interactivity at scale is an existential challenge for higher education teaching and learning, in part because of the way we operationalise interactivity in lieu of other established modes of teaching and learning deployed at scale. Putting aside the monodirectional nature of most lecture spaces, with their prosceniums of screens and whiteboards, their fourth walls and their escalating tiers to support an audience-like experience, interactivity is not native to lecture design (outside of online learning). There have been various solutions enacted to overcome the communicative and architectural limitations of lectures, including personal response systems (Gauci et al., 2009), the emergence of collaborative lecture theatre designs (Swinnerton, 2021) and probably the most popular, flipped learning pedagogies (see Roach, 2014 and Seery, 2015 amongst many others).

Flipped learning is one of the most discussed and implemented reconstructions of the lecture form of the last twenty years. The principle of flipped learning was simple: move the teacher-oriented didactic reception of knowledge out of the face-to-face space and replace it with learner-centred active opportunities for engagement, allowing for practical work and problem-based learning. As Love et al (2014, p. 319) note “doing is more important than knowing and…learning is a trial-and-error process” and flipped learning encouraged doing at scale. Flipped learning pedagogies included the deployment of asynchronous media content (from purposefully designed chunks to reuse of previous years lecture recordings), and the use of established tools for interaction in the form of question and answer, problem sets and case studies. These techniques met with very mixed success, with student satisfaction improvement and learning gain challenged by perceptions of missing out on content, the value propositions of participation and the significantly increased design burden on the teacher, at least in the initial flipped class (Wilson, 2020; Fisher et al., 2021). 

Where the flipped learning pedagogical model unravelled was how to make ‘doing’ happen at scale. As with other modalities of teaching at scale, technology became the promised solution to ameliorating the challenges arising from noise, the spread of engagement and perceived and actual participatory motivations of students, especially if there were transactional motivations at play (see this case study on Nottingham Trent University in the UK by Boulton, 2014). Flipped learning approaches saw lecture theatres of students challenged to crack problems or undertake practice activities within technology platforms like the VLE or third-party apps to move noise and interaction away from the physical space (managing the calm and the chaos of 350 people moving from listening to talking all at once). In other flipped learning classrooms students exercised their interactivity and their engagement by sharing how they responded (or not) to asynchronous content, with polling tools reinforcing a kind of call and response dynamic where students were asked to bounce off the knowledge created by the academic, reflecting it back verbatim or exposing their own questions and uncertainties as opposed to creating knowledge for themselves. And what happened when the call initiated no response? If the tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear? In other examples, students simply refused to participate, not attending, or engaging with the flipped learning as they saw little performative benefit to their desired outcomes.

Flipped learning pedagogies effectively replicate small group teaching practices and magnify them to work in larger spaces, which in part dilute the human, emotive and transitional aspects of interactivity that work so effectively in tutorials. The capabilities for appropriate disciplinary experiences are also compromised by the blurring influence of the user experiences of educational technology platforms. Personal response systems started with simple yes/no MCQ kinds of questions, but what happened if you wanted debate amongst students? Platform says no. Question and answer approaches relied on people in the lecture theatre being willing to speak up and yell from one side of the room to the front, technology is of little help. Interaction between students is reliant on students sitting near each other to be able form small groups and discuss the questions, and room bookings, timetables and student attendance make that problematic. Even with all these challenges, interactivity works to make for a better, more engaged learning experience.  

In part 2 of this blog I will explore the challenges of designing for and delivering interactivity at scale and more importantly, offer solutions and ideas to make it effective, scalable, and sustainable.

Published by Peter Bryant

Associate Dean Education and Co-Director of the Co-Design Research Group

2 thoughts on “Chaos and calm in the lecture theatre: Transforming the lecture by creating and sustaining interactivity at scale part 1

  1. Transforming the lecture is a like making a horse drawn buggy faster. You get rid of the horse, add smaller rubber tired wheels, built it from steel rather than wood, until you have a car, not a buggy. What we should do with the lecture is cherish it for what it is, not try to transform it into something it is not. Instead we should add other forms of learning.

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