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January 5, 2012

"The traditional lecture is dead; long live the visual learning environment." This is the thrust of the argument made by Carl Gombrich, programme director of arts and sciences at University College London, on the UCL teaching and learning portal, in which he suggests that "lectures as a default way of delivering content looks passé and should be discouraged". Lecturers should look instead to online resources as a way of engaging with their students, he says.

"I have been thinking about how we can use technology at universities to give the students what they want: meaningful contact time with their lecturers, professors and the leading academics," he writes.

"A great deal of the content you need to get in years one and two of undergraduate studies at universities is on the web. Why sit through lectures on these things? Even if they're being delivered by really good academics, this is not the best use of anyone's time."

Mr Gombrich's view is that lecturers should be moving to a virtual learning environment (VLE): "Lecturers should upload their lectures by Lecturecast [an automated system at UCL for recording lectures and subsequently making them available via the web] to some VLE or other space where all their students can see them.

"Really, this is no more than 30 to 40 hours' work for lecturers at the start of the year, but if there is resistance to this, then one year's worth of lectures can be used for the next year or two."

Under the proposed model, students would be required to watch these lectures in their own time. "This becomes the major part of their 'coursework' and [students are] then asked to submit three questions to the lecturer based on the lecture they have viewed.

"The lecturer would collate the questions, choosing the top 10 to 30 enquiries to address. The hour allotted for the lecture would then be used as a class discussion, essentially a large-scale seminar," he explains.

Mr Gombrich is confident that such a model could be used to deliver courses to classes of 180 students or more, asserting that the process can happen "in the blink of an eye".

Despite his desire for radical change in the mode of delivery, he says traditional lectures would still have a role to play, and he acknowledges the misgivings that might exist.

"I have run this idea past a couple of colleagues and there is tentative approval," he writes. "One worry is that lecturers 'like to tweak as they go along, be spontaneous, improvise'. I understand this and sympathise. But I don't think this approach is really threatened by what I am proposing.

"The extra work for staff is minimal - maybe 10 to 15 per cent. And the satisfaction of students should more than make up for that."

He adds that the model "seems sustainable and scalable".

"The single biggest asset we [UCL] have is our people - and this model gives students the most access to those people," he writes.

"That is what I would like for my children if I was thinking of them getting in debt to the tune of £50,000 over three to four years.

"If UCL is able to give students access to its lecturers, then undergraduate education will look attractive to students for the foreseeable future."

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