|Image from University of Northampton|
A death was announced today in the Times
. The newspaper covered the 'demise' of the university lecture theatre. The news created a small stir on social media, with several educators opining about what they thought of lecture theatres, their place in universities, the role of technology, and teaching and learning in general.
It seems that the subject of the article, the University of Northampton
(one of the newest universities in the UK) has decided to do away with their traditional raked lecture theatres, and replace them with more open, flat, flexible spaces where teaching can be conducted. The picture above (an artists impression) depicts a lectern and a wall of screens at one end of a carpeted room, with chairs and tables dotted around, cabaret style. Some of the students are using laptops or other connected devices, whilst others are listening as a lecturer holds forth at the front. Above are steps and a raised area, presumably a thoroughfare. It all looks very bright, modern and colourful.
Only trouble is, the illustration holds on to the concept of teaching from the front. It perpetuates the idea that the teacher (lecturer) is at the front of the room, and all attention is there, because that is where the knowledge, and therefore the learning is located. We teach in the same way we ourselves were taught, it is said. It is very difficult to break out from this kind of legacy model, but as sure as Christmas starting in the shops on the first day of November, that is exactly what most teachers do.
While I applaud Northampton's moves to try to change the model and improve spaces for students, I have to ask - are they doing it for the right motives? The Vice Chancellor is quoted as saying that sitting in a hall 'being spouted at does not offer value for money.' Yes, students are paying high tuition fees, and yes they expect more for the more they are paying, but why don't universities make the changes anyway, regardless? It should behove every university to continue to make changes to improve pedagogy. Money, or league tables, or National Student Surveys - none of these should be drivers for improvement.
I also notice that in the illustration at least, there seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding about learning today. Several educators on Twitter this morning underlined the problems: Where are the repeater screens for those facing the wrong way? Why don't the chairs have wheels for more flexibility? Why is there still a lectern? And ultimately, where are the power sockets that provide the juice that keeps the laptops going when batteries are low? These are perennial problems in any large space where student gather, so designing new spaces is surely a wonderful opportunity to address these problems? And perhaps it's simply the journalist's lack of knowledge about university life, but could we call them 'learning spaces' instead of 'cafe style teaching areas' please?
All that said, I still applaud Northampton for making the step toward better learning spaces. I suspect that not many other universities will follow suit, but for those that do, let's remember that it's the student that should always be placed at the centre of the learning process, and that we should design our spaces accordingly. I'm not so sure about their decision to replace lecturer studies with open planned office space though. It's been tried several times before and it never works. And I suspect the announcement of the death of the traditional lecture theatre is somewhat premature.
Space exploration by Steve Wheeler
was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License
Posted by Steve Wheeler from Learning with e's