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

In part 1 of this blog post, I looked at the debates surrounding the epistemological efficacy of the lecture, in the context of the economic, logistical and scale benefits that they generate for higher education institutions. In this second part, I will further explore the rationales for moving away from the lecture as a mode, and why it has passed its use-by date. I will introduce the concept of interactivity at scale as a counter to the traditional lecture mode. In the third part, I will look at the design challenges for developers and program leaders when they make the pedagogical decision to move away from the didacticism of the lecture model and replace it with greater opportunities for students and staff to interact, connect and engage in active learning, whilst remaining at scale. These three posts are the companion pieces to an excellent case study written by Stacey Peterson, Andrew Brock and Elaine Huber on the creation of immersive interactive classes at scale at the University of Sydney Business School.

So, what is wrong with the lecture?

In reality, nothing is wrong with the lecture as a mode of teaching if the designer/lecturer is aware of, and can design for, its limitations. Lectures work to transmit information at scale. They can be inspiring, aspirational and oratorial if, and it’s a big IF, the staff delivering them have the necessary skills set to transform them from being the sage on the stage to something altogether more performative. Practices like reading off slides or repeating knowledge that can be acquired elsewhere without adding value can doom the lecture to be replaced by the far superior lecture recording software, without addressing the limitations of the form.

Business Schools (not exclusively, of course) cannot get away from the affordances of scale. Scale offers economic benefits that smaller group teaching can’t. Scale leverages the finite resource of academic ‘facetime’ and exposes students to a wider range of academic voices. Scale can offer pedagogical benefit from the student being a member of a crowd and leveraging the processing power and collective intelligence that is catalysed by immersing yourself in the noise and chaos of a large group (for a deeper exploration, I have written extensively about the affordances of scale here and here). Therefore, it’s an entirely valid question to ask; if lectures are economically and administratively effective, why do we need to throw the lecture out with the bathwater and design a more interactive and connected experience at scale?

There are significant epistemic differences between the learning that happens in and through social spaces and learning that occurs in consumption spaces. A lecture is generally not a social space as there are not always purposefully designed opportunities for sociality and collaboration in the lesson plan. This can be a function of architecture (as we have discussed before) or a pedagogical matter of convenience. In these instances, a lecture is a consumption space. In urban studies, consumption spaces are city plans and retail spaces that are designed to enable consumption (in a consumerist sense). They are generally shopping centres, recreational facilities and other places purposefully designed for the consumer. Lecture theatres act within similar architectural boundaries, enabling a transactional mindset to higher education. Sociality and socialisation do occur in these spaces but not necessarily between the teachers and the students, but from student to student in informal, unmediated backchannels, facilitated through the same social media they use for their work, life and play (Bryant, 2017).

Lefebvre in his seminal 1974 work ‘The Production of Space’ argues that social spaces are complex and defy analysis, and that “from the point of view of knowing (connaissance), social space works (along with its concept) as a tool for the analysis of society. To accept this much is at once to eliminate the simplistic model of a one-to-one or ‘punctual’ correspondence between social actions and social locations, between spatial functions and spatial forms” (Lefebvre, 1974, p. 26). In Lefebrve’s conceptualisation, the triad of social space (conceived space, as articulated by designers, perceived space as it exists in practice or in the day-to-day mundanity of use, and lived space, as space is experienced by those within it) fractures the structural limitations of power-informed ‘correspondence’ between a student and the teacher and exposes the cohort to the possibility of analysis of complexity, rather than the sharing of the functions of it, however abstract that might be.

Traditional lecture theatres enable an essentially monotonal affair, in part because the lecturer controls access to all the devices that amplify sound and share vision. They are designed to work for the majority of users as a consumption space (Gottdiener, 2000) in the same way a restaurant or music venue is designed to facilitate consumption over production and sociality. Perhaps monotonal is a bit harsh, they are more accurately perhaps, singularly toned with a centre of attention amplified by the design of the space. The ‘audience’ sits in silence watching the show unfold in front of them. Noises reverberate as part of a purposeful acoustic design. When students begin to interact and engage with each other it gets loud, with voices echoing against each other in cacophony, often in rooms with impossibly high ceilings. The lecture theatre and its conceived for purpose are a manifestation of the challenges of learning in chaos (social spaces) and learning through calm (consumption spaces). When people interact it can seem chaotic, lectures on the other hand, are clam in comparison, with only a single voice ringing around the walls.

Social spaces support the production of knowledge that transcends the singular interactions of an audience member interpreting and receiving the intentions of the lecturer. The epistemological benefits of sociality have been extensively debated in the literature. The creation of social spaces that trigger and facilitate interactivity at scale offer opportunities for knowledge production arising from the quantum and breadth of the interacting crowd, facilitated effectively in and through platforms and spaces. It triggers deeper learning, more active engagement with lived and living experiences and more challenging, curious, and creative learners. As Tyrrell and Shalavin (2022) note in their socio-material analysis of a business education crowdsourcing project “…bringing the frames of the materiality of learning together with the concept of collective intelligence that underpins crowdsourcing, we argue that any ‘intelligence’ generated through crowdsourcing lies not just in the collection of separate users and individual contributions, but in how they assemble together relationally with and through a material system, whose aspects range from software to infrastructure, to affects, to policy, to bodies, to institutional culture.”

The design of a social space to enable interactivity at scale is not independent of the architecture of the space, but can transcend the affordances and limitations of AV, seating, and structure. It is the interactivity itself that imprints onto the space. It challenges the expectations of behaviour (which itself can be difficult or traumatic or feel unsafe). As Lefebvre notes:

The social relations of production have a social existence to the extent that they have a spatial existence; they project themselves into a space, becoming inscribed there, and in the process producing that space itself. Failing this, these relations would remain in the realm of “pure” abstraction–that is to say, in the realm of representations and hence of ideology: the realm of verbalism, verbiage and empty words.

Lefebvre 1991, p. 129

The design of interactivity at scale poses two epistemic and pedagogical challenges for developers. Interactivity must transcend the abstraction of some of the previous models of lecture mode transformation such as flipped learning, which in many cases effectively replaced the didactic mode of delivery with other passive forms of sociality in the form of Q+A sessions, polling, and other mediated, controlled engagements. Secondly, it must engage with the different spaces it exists within to deliver an effective and sustainable inclusive pedagogical experience that achieves learning outcomes, builds a true and lasting sense of connection and collaboration within a cohort, whilst not compromising the embedded institutional benefit of offering at-scale learning. The lived experiences and the remembered perceptions of chaos and calm remain powerful antecedents to any redesign of the lecture as an interactive experience at scale. Interactivity at scale as it has been theorised here can help the learner and the teacher transcend expectations and perception and deliver a truly transformative experience for the entire cohort. The key as always is purposeful pedagogical design.

The third and final part of this blog will address these challenges and offer design solutions and examples.

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 2

  1. I didn’t think there was anything more to say about the economics and educational value, or lack thereof, of lectures. I gave up on them fifteen years ago. By now I had hoped that new academics would have been routinely trained in better teaching techniques, and the lecture would have gone the way of the punched card. 😉

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