When I began teaching in 2008, few lectures were recorded, and most of my students attended most of my lectures. Since then, lecture recording has become more and more common. By 2016, approximately half of my students attended classes — the rest watched recordings instead.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this transition to online content and off-campus learning: in 2020, my faculty, along with many others, delivered most content online, enabling students to progress in their studies from the safety of their own home, or even from their home country.
On its face, this shift to online learning is a good thing. Online or recorded lectures require less physical infrastructure and can be reused, reducing time and costs. The material can be accessed remotely, at any time of day — potentially making a university education accessible to more people. And we’ve all got better at exploiting digital technologies: I use videos liberally to teach techniques in advance of laboratory sessions, including screen-capture videos to demonstrate how to use software, which I share online with students.
Without dismissing the value of video and online communication, one question the academic community is asking is whether students will ever return to campus full-time. Ultimately, I think universities should fully open up — where possible and when safe to do so — and students should be encouraged to return for in-person lectures. Here’s why.
In-person lectures are more interactive than online talks
It’s easy to think of a lecture as a one-way delivery of information: someone stands at the front and talks for an hour. But in-person lectures are more than that — a lecturer reads the room, senses comprehension and adjusts style and content in real time.
And, when a student asks a question, everyone benefits from the ensuing discussion. Students don’t just learn the answer, they also learn how to frame a question in a professional, concise manner — both from watching other students and by engaging in the lecture themselves. Showing up prepared and intellectually engaged are job skills that aren’t necessarily captured by exams — but are valuable to employers.
It is challenging to replicate this learning environment outside the in-person lecture. My students acknowledge this: most tell me they get much more out of live lectures. Nevertheless, during the time our campus has been open in 2021, only around 10% of my students have regularly attended lectures, and the campus has been quiet. Although we have effectively no community transmission of COVID-19 here in Brisbane, Australia, safety concerns might have motivated some students to remain at home. But I think that the quiet campus here probably reflects the challenge we have all had with regaining momentum after lockdown inertia, intertwined with students’ diminished motivation to commute when lectures are available online and most of their peers are not on campus.
Poor attendance can also have a negative impact on lecture quality. A lecturer is effectively having a series of discussions with individual students in the class and looking for indications of comprehension; even the quiet student in the corner contributes to the learning environment. When very few students attend, this feedback loop is compromised. It is important to let students know that they play an essential part in creating an excellent learning environment.
Lectures are not podcasts
Students tell me they sometimes treat recorded lectures like podcasts: they watch or listen while engaging in other activities, or are at least focusing less than they would in a classroom. And if they fall behind, they catch up by binge-watching recorded lectures as they would a Netflix series or videos on a YouTube channel.
Because podcasts are fundamentally entertainment, rather than education (although they can be both), they lend themselves to passive listening while performing menial tasks, such as cleaning, driving or exercising. The classroom, like the routine of physically attending lectures, can facilitate active engagement in the subject matter, which is more appropriate for educational purposes.
Unlike lectures, podcasts also make effective use of guests: many successful podcasts rely on discussion between the host and their guests. Ideas evolve and are communicated through discussion, and it is this interaction that often engages viewers as much as the conversation topic. Perhaps future online teaching could exploit discussion between academics as a strategy to drive engagement and comprehension. A discussion between experts is likely to cut rapidly through the detail and to help students to understand the field and where there is consensus or uncertainty. But it is again worth reiterating that a lecture should be a discussion between the lecturer and students, and maintenance of this communication link should be a priority.
The university experience is more than education
Recorded video lectures offer flexibility, allowing students to watch at any time, from any location. And if a student is holding down another job or family obligations, this flexibility could be essential. However, university expands students’ social and professional networks. In my view, in-person lectures are an essential part of that, alongside clubs and societies. The increased reliance on extracurricular activities to build such connections might work better for extroverts, who are likely to build such connections anyway.
For many of us, it was the unstructured interactions during a university course or studying on campus that led to enduring connections. While I pursued my undergraduate degree, my classmates and I would migrate after lectures to the student-union building to tackle both engineering and life’s problems. These periods in the union led to friendships, study groups and a sense of community.
The pandemic has amplified how important social interactions can be for mental health. A discussion before or after class, a lecture question that identifies a common interest, or shared bemoaning about a professor (not me, I’m sure) can underpin social networks for students who might be from another city or another country. With life becoming increasingly fast-paced, and increasingly digital, universities might offer one of the last opportunities for young adults to meet face-to-face. Maybe the need for on-campus education has never been greater?
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.
The author declares no competing interests.