Leaving lectures behind makes sense for our university – here’s why

We know that employing learners as active co-creators of their learning builds opportunities for knowledge absorption, say Guy Daly and Andrew Turner

March 3, 2021
An empty lecture theatre and why Coventry University is moving away from the traditional lecture
Source: Getty

As indicated by the oft-referenced Laurentius de Voltolina painting of a 14th-century lecture, this mode of delivery may have been fit for purpose once upon a time, but the idea that it’s the best and most effective way for modern institutions to facilitate learning to 200 to 300 people at once is, at best, outmoded.

The traditional lecture is the hallmark of the “content first” learning experience, which most universities have emphasised for centuries. It can expose students to perspectives and thoughts from an eminent thinker and, given its familiarity, it can provide students with a structure and map of what is expected within the learning experience.

But traditional, content-first teaching approaches ignore much of what decades of research has taught us about how ineffective it is for supporting students’ learning and how it is often an inefficient and uninspiring approach to the retention of information.  

At Coventry University, we have instead opted for a “community first” approach to teaching and learning. The learning experiences we are striving to create for our students require them to actively participate in the construction of their own understanding. We know that when we employ learners as active co-creators of their learning, it builds opportunities not just for the deeper absorption of knowledge but also its application in real or close-to-real scenarios, delivering against work-readiness needs for their futures. 

In practice, we have been able to make this transition by focusing on two key pillars: first, embracing a different pedagogical model and, second, supporting academics in the transition to this new approach.

Our community-first model emphasises active learning and strives to create a sense of connection between students and their tutor, their peers and the institution. This means maximising opportunities for feedback through formal and informal assessment. It combines “bite size” presentations with weekly tasks and activities designed to engage students in real-world problems and maximise opportunities for collaboration.

As an example, in a marketing module, students take part in a “marketing experience”, during which they work together each week to tackle marketing challenges (responding to a brief, for example) and receive feedback from industry marketing experts. This includes engaging with up-to-date research on best practices and applying that learning to produce a tangible, real-world output such as a campaign portfolio.

Of course, many institutions regularly revise and improve their teaching and learning strategies. Far too often, however, a lack of support for academics to make the transition undermines efforts to enable pedagogical change at scale.

Instead, institutions end up with “pockets of innovation”, which end up serving as case studies in internal communications. In creating community-first learning experiences, the key obstacles for academic staff would be finding the time and developing the capabilities needed in terms of learning design, professional development and use of technology.

To accomplish this at scale, we’ve worked rapidly with Aula, our newly adopted learning experience platform, ditching our traditional virtual learning environment (VLE) to transform our entire provision to be delivered in a blended or fully online format. This is delivered through both an intuitive technology platform and one-to-one learning design for academics.

The user experience of the technology resembles that for the kinds of platforms students use daily outside of education. By providing every single academic the opportunity to work with an expert learning designer to construct their module, each module is designed to encourage interaction as per the community-first model, whether by sharing their work or reacting to other students’ work and comments. This positions student engagement and peer-to-peer collaboration as a core driver of the learning experience.

Our partnership is starting to bear fruit. A majority (78 per cent) of students reported feeling part of a community, compared to the 41 per cent Jisc sector benchmark. Across 100 modules, which went live in May last year as part of the first cohort leveraging this approach, two-thirds of modules received satisfaction scores higher than 90 per cent. Several academics who had never taught online received perfect satisfaction scores, even through the rigours of lockdown. 

Crucially, a significant majority of academics have been very supportive of the approach. More than 75 per cent of educators said it helped them positively transform their teaching approach, citing ease of use and increased engagement from students.

In reality, student frustration with their 2020-21 experiences comes from several sources. One of these may be a patchwork approach to their degree courses, which has seen some bounce between presentations and recorded lectures to online video calls and independent reading. 

The shift to remote learning may mean that our staff are better versed in the learning platform and Microsoft Teams, but to deliver the next phase of this development, there will be a significant need to upskill academics on impactful practice in blended learning, such as teacher presence, creation of community and understanding related data sets to drive consistent engagement.

We feel that all of this is made possible by institutions evolving their ability to support academics with learning design. Our university has chosen its course and is aligned around developing its digital offerings. This is not only so we can offer students tailored and responsive learning that works for them, but also to achieve our own development aims. For us, moving away from the static lecture makes sense.

Guy Daly is deputy vice-chancellor (education and students) and Andrew Turner is associate pro vice-chancellor (teaching and learning) at Coventry University.

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Reader's comments (3)

"...supporting academics in the transition to this new approach" In plain English this usually mean "...forcing academics to adopt a new approach" or in even simpler terms "my way, or the highway." This entire piece reads like a PR press release from Coventry University. Short on editorial material much, THE?
"But traditional, content-first teaching approaches ignore much of what decades of research has taught us about how ineffective it is for supporting students’ learning and how it is often an inefficient and uninspiring approach to the retention of information." - this! Fascinating, and bold, to undertake such a change during a pandemic
It's an interesting article that doesn't really paint a true picture of what happened. Pure PR spin. Aula is very basic and didn't even have any sort of quiz tool until very recently. How can you teach without lectures or a VLE with no formative/summative assessment? Moodle has been switched on throughout and heavily used. This was top down with very little guidance or support for staff. It was rushed to launch in September and Aula wasn't/isn't ready.