Chaos and calm in the lecture theatre: Transforming the lecture by creating and sustaining interactivity at scale part 3

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 part 2, I explored the rationales for moving away from the lecture as a mode, and why it has passed its use-by date. I introduced the concept of interactivity at scale as a more effective and aspirational counter-form to the traditional lecture mode. 

In this third and final part, I will look at the design challenges for developers and programs 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.

Design challenges for large-scale interactivity

Designing an interactive experience at scale through the creation, nurturing and acceptance of social spaces is not an easy task. There are challenges such as architecture, audience, dynamics, systems, inclusivity, and transition that by necessity shape the design of activities, communication approaches, feedback loops and connection making. Designing effectively for these challenges in the wider epistemic and pedagogical ambitions of the unit of study and the economic affordances of scale can seem like threading a needle in a hurricane. Without re-prosecuting the arguments in the first and second parts of this blog, interactivity at scale, whilst deeply impacted by purposeful pedagogical design, is enhanced by how it is experienced by those in the room. Addressing these challenges exposes realistic possibilities for interactivity and its ensuing connections to be both experienced as learning and experienced through learning.

Figure 1. The challenges of designing for interactivity at scale (Bryant, 2023)

1. The challenge of architecture

Most lecture theatres are not designed for interactivity. They have a simple yet effective design that facilitates the opposite. They privilege didactic engagement through sound reinforcement, an audience/performer dynamic and the location of audio-visuals. Students are expected to watch and learn, academics to profess and teach. The space is full of barriers; huge teaching desks, steep tiers and rows and rows of seating that prevent exit in the middle of the performance. Now in that space, ask a group in row 5 to work with a group in row 12, and make sure you include the one student sitting all the way at the back. Next, you the teacher, try and find your way to that group to check on their progress, answer questions. Finally, let’s ask those students to present their answers to the whole room. Rabe-Hemp et al. (2009) (in the context of comparing distance education to traditional campus-based learning) argue that this instructor-centred learning leads to passive learners, decreased motivations to attend classes and an unhealthy focus on grades over attainment. We see it in empty lecture theatres, high lecture recording use and disengagement even with attempts to encourage participation (a situation made quite famous on Twitter in 2022 by my USYD colleague Jan Slapeta).

The solution is to re-design or break the space, which can be an expensive exercise, although less expensive than rebuilding lecture spaces. There are dozens of great examples of interactive, collaborative learning spaces at places like the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Leeds (UK). At the University of Sydney Business School, we are working on an entirely innovative approach that fractures the dynamics of the architecture for 200 people, designing interactivity and connection into the DNA of a large flat-floor space. We will be sharing more about this space in the second half of 2023 and you can read about the principles we are using here. The other option is to break the space. By that I mean, use lecture theatres for purposes they were not designed: make activities interactive despite the limitations of space and turn the affordances of an effective lecture space (audience, sound reinforcement, a ‘stage’ vibe) into ways of triggering interaction. You could turn the front of the lecture theatre into the stage for a case study), a speakers corner, an open mic night. Engage the students to break down the expected behaviours in the space and gamify their engagement. This imbues the space with the lived and living experiences of those who reside in it. Atmosphere and architecture define one experience, the people in the space make those experiences their own.   

2. The challenge of audience

Which leads us to the challenge of being part of an audience. The tropes and expected behaviours of students in lectures align closely to that of an audience for a performance. They are passive receivers who learn through listening, reflecting, and repeating the lecture as a form of revision. As McKeachie (1997) notes students like the passive approach because it means they are taught, rather than actively learning, they have the disciplinary knowledge organised for them and that lectures align more closely with the expectations of the final exam. The design of interactivity at scale must overcome the inherent passivity that is expected of (and enjoyed by) the audience. A lecture theatre is an easy place to hide, a difficult place to traverse and the audience is often motionless and static.

The solution is to change the dynamic. Make interaction part of the essential nature of being in that class, without enforcing a singular mode of engagement. It is still a daunting space, with all the fears and inhibitions of public speaking and performance. But working in small groups and then shifting to facilitating those groups to share their insights or solutions, not necessarily with the whole room, but with others in the space changes the dynamics of the room and breaks the fourth wall. It engenders the experience with action, connection, and a sense of fun (fear, creativity, etc). The risk for designers and teachers is that passivity is easy for all involved and working in groups is not always welcomed, which can lead to decreasing attendance and engagement. The key is to make sure engaging in production and sociality has meaningful value to the students and that the value of consumption is neutral at best.

3. The challenge of quiet/loud

There is a trope in music, especially prevalent in alternative music that is called quiet/loud. The absolute master of this style are the Pixies, who start a song softly and then as they come to chorus, whack on the distortion and the song roars into life, only to retreat into the sparsity of the quiet chorus. The most popular version of quiet/loud remains Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana (a band heavily influenced by the Pixies).

A lecture theatre is designed for the verse, it is a quiet space (the calm). Interactivity will be loud at times, but the important thing is that loud is good. Interactivity crunches down on the distortion pedal and lets fly (the chaos). Interactivity even at scale can also be quiet, contemplative, studious and reflective. Professor Brian Cox once noted that there was incredible power to hearing 20,000 people collectively thinking (in his case about black holes). Either way, the space will amplify the loud or quiet.

The solution here is to design for calm and chaos. Create activities that benefit from the power of the crowd. Use technology to displace the interaction to different online spaces and concentrate the effort of the design into the opportunities to connect and collaborate. Utilise interactivity with something, a video or other media, a case study, a problem set. In the case of the LPC Live events (see again, the excellent blog on this project), we had students interacting with actors, with AI generated moderators or with a panel. Interactivity is not all group work and presenting back. Interactivity at scale forces you to think out of the box and rethink the spaces and their expected and perceived behaviours.

4. The challenge of systems

University systems such as timetabling, AV and curriculum management rust on lecture/tutorial models and make the flexibility of interactivity difficult to facilitate. Systems reinforce a learner experience that fits within their UX parameters and functionality. You want to have a single large group in week 1 and then four groups of 50 in week 2 and then a small group seminar for 200 people in week 3, systems invariably say no. The capabilities and costs of AV challenge interactions supported by technology greater than the single voice at the front. 

The solution is to break the system. We can only break the system if we can collectively make both the economic and pedagogical case. Revenue models and costs are tightly wound systems with little margin for error. Breaking the system does not have to be rent with risk. Small interventions such as webcams, open software solutions and using existing tools like the LMS in different ways can break the system to achieve the aims of interactivity. Breaking the system also requires students to come along with you for the ride. And again, this means that there needs to be an effective and persuasive value proposition.

5. The challenge of accessibility

There are both deliberate and accidental considerations of accessibility and inclusion in traditional lecture theatres. Most lecture spaces have clear design briefs and technology to ensure sight and hearing. Lecture theatres are designed to support access for students with disabilities. On the accidental side of the coin, lecture recordings can help with closed captioning, neuro-diverse learners and students who cannot attend in person for health reasons. I say accidental because these are not the purposes for which they are designed, and they come at the expense of being ‘in the room’.

My challenge to you as an academic is expand your idea of accessibility. There are multiple theories of accessible and inclusive learning (universal design for learning is one). Accessibility and inclusion in interactivity are more than the physical structures of the room. To be effective, design needs to engage with the wider principles of access and equity, wellbeing, and safety. Put on your designer hat and think through how each activity you offer to students, each decision you make, each opportunity for connection can be made more accessible.  Widen and deepen the opportunities, platforms and models of collaboration and connection. Talk to experts in your institution on accessibility and inclusion and listen to your students. Interactivity is less accidentally inclusive but can be so much more purposeful.

6. The challenge of transitional space

The final challenge is more existential in the context of space. Transitional spaces are “…entertaining strangeness and playing in difference. We are crossing that important internal boundary that is the line between the person we have been but no longer are and the person we will become” (Ellsworth, 2005). They “facilitate experiment, openness and confrontation with others, production of meaning and understanding of the Self and the world” allowing graduates to work through the experiences they have already had in work, life, play and learning to reconstruct and define reality and their identity as leaders as and when it happens (Dubouloy, 2004).

Transitional spaces facilitate learners to draw on the knowledge, skills, and experiences they bring to university, however nascent, to make connections and enable a transitional experiential learning benefit. These situated lived experiences are critical to developing the transdisciplinary skills of resilience, creativity, and intuition that are essential for the future success of business students. Transitional spaces represent safe ways to experience crisis, challenge, fear, opportunity, possibility, and creativity. They run counter to many of the policy settings that undermine of the marketisation and ‘first job-ness’ of modern higher education, which link education and certified performance to success in attaining graduate employment in a ‘dream job’. 

There are many solutions to the challenge of transitional space, and I will be exploring them in greater depth in a journal article on leadership education later in 2023. But for the design of interactivity at scale, one solution is immersion. Immersive experiences trigger multisensory learning through tricking the brain into a sense of hyperreality. Baudrillard (1998) locates hyperreality in a simulacrum of simulation and imitation that finds fulfilment, happiness, or joy (and I would add learning) in simulated rather than a real reality. A hyperreality experience is one way to locate learning in transitional spaces as the safety, the journey and the understanding of self can happen in simulated experiences, very different to the passivity of the lecture.

An afterword

The 2022 Bangkok Art Biennale used the title CHAOS: CALM as thematic frame for their exhibition, making connections between the world before, during and (heading towards) after the pandemic. The program describes the very human learning that comes from engaging with both chaos and calm:

The binary opposite of chaos and calm will reflect the zeitgeist of the confusing world we live in. Artists whose works reflect turbulence, trauma and angst remind us of the fragility of life at the time of pandemic, climate change, environment detriment, politics, and clashes in ideologies. In the dystopian and delusional world, the artists reveal consequences of destruction of humankind and nature from their own making.

Amidst chaos, there are glimpses of hope and serendipity as human and nature slowly come to terms with survivalism. With the immensity of detriment and destruction, ways of life will never return to what once known as normalcy. Discovery of calmness in turmoil can be unexpectedly enriching through sagacity and chance. Such process covers a wide range of demands including empathy, patience, allure, and humour. Calmness and tranquillity can still be experienced simultaneously in our new world of post-pandemic and upheaval.

Interactivity at scale is not an easy design challenge or experience for the learner, the teacher, or the institution. It is one of the reasons why flipped learning persisted as an alternative to lectures. True interactivity is much more complex, dangerous, and risky, but equally if designed well, the opportunities for inspirational, transitional, and transformational learning far outweigh the momentums against change.

Published by Peter Bryant

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

One thought on “Chaos and calm in the lecture theatre: Transforming the lecture by creating and sustaining interactivity at scale part 3

  1. The challenge moving from lectures is first to carve out time to do design, & then to have someone at the university trained in course design. The other challenge is to have management acknowledge active learning at scale is not as cheap as lectures. A minor consideration is the design of lecture theatres. If the organisation has accepted interaction is needed, then lecture theatres have to go. These new spaces need not be so large, as studnts will be working with each other, & with a tutor, not a “lecturer”. One key way to do this is with changed assessment, to let the studnts, and their tutors, know what is expected.

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