As fee-paying, tech-savvy students demand to learn on their own terms, universities must think beyond getting bums on seats. By Etan Smallman
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In a decade, will the university lecture be as alien a concept to students as the full grant, the floppy disk or the landline phone?
The lecture theatre – that most staid of educational settings – is increasingly becoming a fraught battleground for undergraduates and their academics. In August, it emerged that Lancaster, East Anglia and Brunel universities were running evening lectures finishing as late as 8pm – to adapt to rising student numbers.
In the same month, Durham backed down on its own attempt to cope with the pressures of expansion – proposed 8am lectures – after protests from students and staff.
And in September, the University of Northampton opened its rebuilt waterside campus without any traditional lecture theatres at all. Vice chancellor Nick Petford said the buildings were designed to avoid “industrial-scale lecturing” and students “turning up and having someone spouting at you for 50 minutes”.
In November, an English literature tutor at Birmingham university emailed 400 students a photo of an empty hall – pondering why not a soul had bothered to show up and declaring that she was “frankly shocked at this total lack of interest”.
Annabelle Penhaligon, a 19-yearold second-year student, was one of them. It was just another case of poor timing, she says; the presentation on marking criteria was scheduled during reading week and after essays had been handed in.
“As we are the students paying these ridiculous fees, it is our choice to turn up to lectures,” she tells i. “They need to adapt to the digital age. The university has chosen to start uploading lectures online, which is fantastic, but they must also understand that then discourages students from turning up.”
Average time-tabled contact hours for UK students have increased in the past three years, by about 20 minutes a week, to 13.7 hours, according to the 2018 Student Academic Experience Survey. But the number of hours actually attended by students – 12.1 – has flatlined.
Yet contact time is still one of the key barometers by which students assess their university experience – those studying subjects with the highest workload are least likely to say they wish they had chosen another course.
And those who receive fewer lectures, seminars and tutorials are three times more likely to say they do not think their course was value for money, according to research by Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute.
A business lecturer, who asked to remain anonymous, tells i she has been disappointed to find “a slice of students” who hardly attend and when they do are disengaged or, worse, disruptive.
“I’m actually sitting in a classroom right now,” she says. “I should be in the middle of a two-hour lecture and there’s no one here but me. In large lectures, you’re looking at maybe a quarter attendance. In smaller ones, you could be getting maybe half to two-thirds.
“It’s frustrating if they come to class and they’re on their phones, shopping online or tweeting or Instagramming. I wonder why they come, especially given that most are self-financing – they’re in debt. In one recent lecture, a student made a telephone call. There were only 40 people in the room, so you could hear him talking. I was a bit incredulous.”
She says she had to turn down an offer from a leading chief executive to speak to her students. “I thought to myself there’s no way I’ll invite him to speak because my students won’t show up and if they do, they might behave badly. And that is outrageous.”
Technology may help fill the expectations gap. Matt Lingard, digital learning director at the London College of Communication, says live voting in classes from students’ phones is likely to be a common component in the coming years: “It is particularly valuable in gaining anonymous feedback, assessing class understanding and encouraging engagement.”
Simon Mortimore, head of information technology at Merton, Oriel and Corpus Christi colleges at the University of Oxford, says institutions have had to upgrade their internet systems just to cope with “100 students in the same room, each with two to three devices connecting simultaneously”.
Beyond that, the recording of lectures can be crucial, particularly for undergraduates with extra learning or language needs.
“It allows those students to go back through the content at their own pace. Lectures can also be live-streamed around the world, with video conferencing bringing presenters from overseas into our campus.”
He adds that the “flipped lecture” model is also proving increasingly popular. “Students are asked to complete tasks ahead of time and the results are fed back to the lecturer, who can tailor their session accordingly. If the majority struggle with one particular area, it allows the lecturer to focus the content on where pupils need assistance, resulting in a much higher level of engagement and understanding.”
Carolina Are sees things from both sides, as a PhD student and a visiting criminology and journalism lecturer at City, University of London. She believes the high fees (up to £9,250 a year in England and Wales) “encourage a customer rather than a learning relationship between students and lecturers”, which fuels demands that often cannot be fulfilled.
But Are says tutors can improve their teaching by tailoring their content to millennial consumption habits. She says she has received lots of praise from students “for my use of memes, GIFs and videos from popular culture in my lectures. I’m 25 and can’t sit through Power-Points or talks without interesting images – my thoughts just drift off.”
Penhaligon insists the onus is on the academics: “If they want to encourage lecture attendance, they need to show what students gain from attending – because if a student can watch the same lecture from the comfort of their own bed, they will!”