Some educators want to abandon the time-honoured format in favour of new technology, while others laud its sense of occasion. Rebecca Attwood reports. The traditional university lecture is under attack, it was claimed this week.
For centuries the lecture has been the cornerstone of university teaching, but now it stands as "only one of a plethora" of educational tools at the disposal of the academic community, according to a paper in the Journal of Further and Higher Education .
As more academics deliver "virtual" lectures via podcasts and the internet, some lecturers have argued that the real thing is becoming less important.
And amid moves to make learning more participatory, personalised and flexible, the lecture stands accused of being a one-way format that encourages "shallow" learning and fails to take account of students' diverse learning needs, according to Steve Jones, a biochemist at King's College, London, in "Reflections on the lecture: outmoded medium or instrument of inspiration?".
Keith Hammond, a lecturer in adult and continuing education at Glasgow University, said: "Good learning involves far more of a role for the student than sitting in front of a podium listening to an expert."
And while a good lecture could be inspirational, he said, a bad lecture was "torture".
"Students can internalise the failing of a lecture as a failure of their own ... The result of a bad lecture can be devastating," he said.
Bill Ashraf, a senior lecturer at Bradford University who has abandoned lectures in favour of podcasts for his first-year biochemistry students, believes conventional lectures are not always the most effective way to teach today's growing student body.
"Every generation or so I think we need to have a rethink. Now that lectures can have as many as 250 students, relying on the traditional lecture alone is perhaps not the best way to get across very complex ideas to a very diverse group of students with a range of educational backgrounds and educational needs," he told The Times Higher .
But some say the lecture has unique strengths that can't be simulated through technology.
Kate Exley, senior staff development officer at Leeds University and a higher education consultant, said: "Lectures bring people together who are part of a learning community - there is a sense of occasion, of the 'here and now'.
"They also provide the opportunity of hearing straight from the horse's mouth - from the person who is actually doing the research or at least from the person who has spent time, energy and thought synthesising a lecture at the appropriate level for the students who will be receiving it," Ms Exley said.
Lynn Vos, senior lecturer in marketing at Middlesex University said anecdotal research suggested that most students did not like online lectures and preferred face-to-face delivery. "Emerging technologies for alternative delivery are just that - emerging," she said.
Other lecturers say bringing technology to the lecture theatre helps them adapt the format itself to overcome its problems; for example, increasing student engagement through the use of interactive handsets.
"Technology is adding to the richness of opportunity in lectures," said Dr Exley. "The lecture isn't dead, but it is changing."
Among many educationists, the view is that the lecture should be just one part of a variety of learning experiences for students.
Allison Littlejohn, director of the new Caledonian Academy, said: "What I'd like to see is the lecture becoming one in a much richer repertoire of learning and teaching, with these different approaches selected according to which is most appropriate."
Carolyn Roberts, co-director of the Centre for Active Learning at Gloucestershire University, said that it was wrong to see lecturing and other learning activities as being in competition.
"Both have a clear potential role if deployed appropriately. What is depressing is the unthinking use of lectures to convey factual material that could better be delivered in alternative ways, releasing the classroom time for more exciting and interactive engagements," she said.
THE FUTURE IS MOBILE: GLASGOW CALEDONIAN DEVELOPS LEARNING ON THE MOVE
Glasgow Caledonian University plans to move beyond traditional lectures, seminars and tutorials with a centre to investigate the potential of mobile technologies.
The Caledonian Academy will develop fresh approaches to teaching and assessment and prepare students for today's workplace.
"Its aims are to lead innovative practice within the university and to contribute to international research on learning and teaching," Allison Littlejohn, director of the Academy, said.
Academics will examine ways of using computers, phones, MP3 players and social networking sites to aid learning.
Professor Littlejohn said the sector needed to examine its approach to teaching and not just use technology as a "bolt-on".
"I don't view a podcast of a lecture as being a massive leap from the lecture model. What will transform the lecture is not technology per se but how it is used." Pamela Gillies, vice-chancellor and principal of Glasgow Caledonian, said: "The Caledonian academy will give our students a flexible learning experience, tailored to their personal needs and also those of business."