What will teaching look like in the future?

Professor Moira Fischbacher-Smith, Vice Principal Learning & Teaching, shares our approach to teaching in a world where it has been necessary to adapt and change to continue to offer students a vibrant learning experience.

We have just launched our new Learning and Teaching Strategy 2021−25 that sets out our plans for transforming teaching and supporting student development. There are many aspects to the strategy but given the current public debate about lectures, I focus here on some aspects of our approach to developing teaching.

The pandemic-induced, rapid shift to pervasive online teaching has led to much media discussion about future teaching. Unfortunately, in that discussion, online is often portrayed as being a poor substitute for on-campus teaching. Part of the problem with the debate is the focus on the term ‘lecture’, without unpacking what that means or recognising that pre-pandemic, there was much criticism that the lecture was outdated, and many universities were reporting poor attendance and had concerns about passive learning in some lecture settings.

Will on-campus lectures exist post-pandemic?

"The important question is not ‘will lectures take place on campus?’ but ‘how can teaching be as engaging and effective as possible?’."

Like many other universities around the world, we have been rethinking our approach to teaching for several years and were already evolving our approach.

We have just built a new teaching facility, the James McCune Smith Learning Hub, in which we have designed sector-leading facilities including a 500-seat collaborative lecture theatre and several other large teaching spaces. We also have ongoing refurbishment plans for other teaching spaces and fully expect to see many large classes on campus in the future. At the same time, we do anticipate there being fewer ‘lectures’ on campus. This is not a contradiction! It reflects the fact that teaching events of any size, where a lecturer talks to a large group of students and where there is limited interaction, will feature much less in the future.

So, the important question is not ‘will lectures take place on campus?’ but ‘how can teaching be as engaging and effective as possible?’. To answer that, our new on-campus spaces are unlike any large teaching spaces we have previously designed on campus, and effective online learning designs will continue to play a key role in teaching.

Interactive, student-centred learning

We want students to interact during classes because they learn more that way and build relationships with others. Such interaction can be difficult in a large group setting in a traditional, raked lecture theatre space. Therefore, for the last five years we have been reshaping our physical estate and redesigning teaching to enable interaction, in-depth learning in the discipline, and the development of skills that are important in the workplace such as collaboration skills, communication skills and group work. The teaching spaces support the use of mobile devices, offer flexible group-based layouts, and many reflect the workspaces students are likely to encounter when they graduate.

How online can be better

We had also been making more use of technology to enhance learning before the pandemic, including introducing more online teaching within on-campus programmes as well as more fully online programmes. The pandemic has undoubtedly been a catalyst for redesigning teaching, and we will retain many of those online learning experiences within on campus programmes. Importantly, this is because in many cases, students and staff said the experience was better.

Positive feedback we have received includes the following:

  • Interaction in live online classes was less intimidating for students than in a room on campus with 300 people
  • Students could ask a question in the chat when it was in their mind without interrupting
  • Lecturers often used polls that allowed students to vote up questions that they really wanted answered
  • Lectures were often recorded, so students could access them again for revision purposes
  • Many lecturers adopted approaches that students really enjoyed such as the ‘watch party lecture’ where they broke lectures down, pre-recorded them, played the videos with the students in the class and then had discussions in between sections of the lecture
  • Students could see one another’s names on the screen so learned who was in the class
  • Students with disabilities could participate more easily and benefit from assisted technologies where they require them
  • Students with caring responsibilities benefited from the flexibility and found it easier to manage demands on their time.

The future is blended

The on-campus experience is hugely important for students and for the University and will remain so as we evolve how we teach and how we maximise the benefits of the on-campus and online time we spend with students to support their learning.

Small group teaching is crucial for developing learning communities. Large group teaching can also support interaction and community-building among students when learning design focuses on student-centred, active learning approaches. Technology is enabling these new approaches and we intend to embrace technology in our learning design to support a blended approach of online and on-campus teaching.

Ours is a story of higher education adapting and changing, leveraging digital and capital investments, preparing students for their future world of work, and valuing social interaction in on-campus spaces for a vibrant learning experience.