metaphor,  onlinepivot

Why returning to the lecture only model is a bad idea


What follows is an extract from my forthcoming book, Metaphors of Ed Tech. I’ve published it here in response to some truly awful reporting and political posturing recently which is again promoting the notion that the lecture is the only way to conduct higher ed. Online ed is being chastised as inferior, often by the same people who decry that education hasn’t changed in 100 years. Given that it was online education that pretty much saved education last year when the precious lecture model failed so spectacularly, this rather has the sense of one of those horror films where the hero survives the monsters only to be shot in the closing scene by the army coming to decontaminate the area. Anyway, here’s the more reasoned argument.

The Lecture and online education

The lecture may seem an odd choice as a metaphor, because in most instances we mean it literally, students attend lectures in a lecture hall. But for online learning it has served as a model that is either replicated or presented in terms of its difference. This became particularly apparent during the online pivot, where the lecture was deemed to be the only, and best, method to realise higher education. All online options were then presented as attempting to recreate lectures online or as a deficit model in comparison to face to face lectures.

When Cambridge University announced it was moving online, the headline was ‘All lectures to be online-only‘. Not that all learning was moving online, but the stress was on lectures. There was a call that students should be offered refunds because they may deem online learning to be inferior. The UK Education Secretary reportedly demanded that universities should resume face-to-face lectures or have their funding cut. The Sunday Times ran the headline “Universities refuse to end online lessons”, with the implication that online should be ceased as soon as possible. Others went even further, declaring distance education and online learning to be an existential threat: ‘Continuing with virtual learning threatens the entire concept of the college experience. Higher education, like K-12, depends on proximity to real people, not squares on a screen. Educators at all levels have dedicated themselves to teaching students during the pandemic, but they know that they’re offering thin pedagogical gruel… The main reason why the “distance learning revolution” didn’t replace the traditional model is that online learning just isn’t as good.’

Figlio, Rush and Yin (2013) compared face to face lectures with students receiving online streamed versions of the same lectures and found that students preferred the face to face version. This is perhaps unsurprising, rather like comparing the live performance of theatre to seeing it on television. But the comparison is unfair if it is meant to demonstrate that online learning is inferior. This is clearly not learning that was designed to be taken online, and so always suffers by comparison. Courses that are designed specifically for online delivery will make use of the affordances of that medium, such as a rich mix of resources, asynchrounous delivery, embedded  communication and commentary, and so on. To return to the theatre analogy, the comparison would be not with theatre streamed to the television, but with a more internet native form of entertainment, such as online gaming. The desired outcome for people partaking in both is similar – to be entertained – but the environments in which this goal is realised offer different possibilities.

During the early stages of the online pivot, it was understandable that the lecture should be the means by which higher education could provide a continuation of service. There simply wasn’t time to do anything else. However, the online pivot is likely to go through different stages, for example Hill suggests the following four phases:

  • Phase 1 (Feb – Mar 2020): Rapid Transition to Remote Teaching and Learning 
  • Phase 2 (Apr – Jul 2020): (Re)adding the Basics 
  • Phase 3 (Aug – Dec 2020): Extended Transition During Continued Turmoil 
  • Phase 4 (2021 and beyond): Emerging New Normal 

It is likely that in Hill’s model, only at Phase 4 when online and blended provision becomes part of the normal offering, even when the pandemic is over, that we will see extensive course redesign.

These objections to online learning hold the central belief in the superiority of the lecture. Indeed, it seems that no other model is imaginable. With that basis, online learning becomes the mere replication of the lecture, and this is inevitably seen as a deficit. Even in this limited frame there is some room for debate, since lecture capture (where a face to face lecture is recorded and can be viewed by students any time) has been in place for some time on many campuses. The results of this are varied, but it can lead to a decline in attendance, which begs the question that if the face-to-face experience was unarguably superior, why do students opt to watch lectures online? This can be for a variety of reasons, including convenience, improved note-taking and controlling the pace of the lecture. In short, the kind of flexibility that asynchronous online learning can offer over synchronous face to face, but lecture capture really only hints at the difference rather than an approach designed specifically for online.

What this reliance on the lecture demonstrates is a paucity of metaphors or models for other ways of learning. The default metaphor becomes the lecture because that is all that people have experienced. How did the lecture get to this position of dominance as the sole measure of pedagogic excellence? As a means of knowledge transmission it is not that effective generally, with Laurillard (2001) concluding it is ‘a very unreliable way of transferring the lecturer’s knowledge to the student’s notes’. She goes on to decry their persistence despite this inefficiency: ‘Why aren’t lectures scrapped as a teaching method? If we forget the eight hundred years of university tradition that legitimises them, and imagine starting afresh with the problem of how to enable a large percentage of the population to understand difficult and complex ideas, I doubt that lectures will immediately spring to mind as the obvious solution.’ (Pg 93).

Partly the lecture’s continuation is a result of cultural inertia. As Laurillard points out, there is some 800 years of history, which is hard to overcome. Students are taught via lectures, and when they become educators, that is the model they know and perpetuate. It is also true that lectures can be effective means of combining different media with lecturers using video, images, text and the spoken word. They are also performances which the learner participates in, along with others, making them a social event. And, despite Laurillard’s objections to the format overall, we can all cite examples of very effective lectures.

In addition to social inertia, there is also an economic model for lectures. Online learning can potentially offer cost savings, but often this is through the sort of reduced labour models highlighted in the Uber for Education type examples. Developing online learning nearly always turns out to be more expensive than anticipated, as was evidenced by much of the investment in MOOCs. Cost saving is not the best reason to pursue online learning, although it is not necessarily more expensive than constructing a campus and maintaining physical buildings. However, once those constructions costs have been invested, there is an economic argument for continuing with the lecture model. Neither the campus based lecture model and the purely online model are necessarily more cost effective than the other, but they do involve different types of costs, for example online learning typically requires more investment in course production than a face to face lecture series, while the campus model necessitates building and maintenance costs. It therefore becomes expensive to run both models of specialised online learning and campus based delivery simultaneously as they have different cost requirements.

It has been the case that for many years, universities have been offering a form of blended, or hybrid, learning which combines some face to face and online elements. A model that has gained popularity during the pandemic is that of hyflex, combining hybrid and flexible, so that students can attend face-to-face lectures or online, giving some of the flexibility we saw in the chapter on learner agency. However, if the lecture is taken as the basic model for online, and by extension, blended learning, then a number of assumptions follow from that:

  • Education is largely based around synchronous lectures
  • It deploys a one to many model
  • It uses a largely didactic pedagogy
  • The significance of timetabling for interdisciplinary study is reinforced

An online course can offer a contrast to many of these. It can be asynchronous, so the learner can control the time and place when they engage in their study. It can be collaborative in a variety of ways, for example, creating shared documents or wikis, aggregating blog posts together, sharing found resources, commenting on peer’s work, engaging in discussion on course content, annotating web pages, editing an open textbook, etc. All of these can be done face to face also, but by shifting online and combining synchronous and asynchronous elements many of the tasks are made easier to realise. It also allows for the kind of multidisciplinary study and flexibility that arises when timetabling becomes less significant, (as I argued here). Shifting away from the lecture as the central model, creates space both cognitively and in the course study calendar for such approaches to be explored.

The architecture of the university campus shapes much of how higher education is realised. It undertakes a significant amount of the labour required in organisation for students and staff: they arrive at a certain place at a certain time to receive content (the lecture); they go to another place for discussion (seminars); another location for laboratory work; a separate building to access resources (the library); they undertake socialisation in cafes and bars designed to promote this. When learning shifts online these cues are lost, with two consequences – the learner must take on more responsibility to organise their own learning, and the educator must explicitly build in these different types of interaction within their course design. The architecture no longer performs much of the implicit work, but this is also liberating. Here are some small examples from my own experience in how this differs:

  • Group activities that can be done quickly face to face take much more time online, particularly if they involve allocating roles and tasks to people.
  • In online discussion forums it may be the case that people who don’t often speak up in class, have more to say.
  • Instructions and content that may seem obvious, won’t be to some. If something can be misinterpreted, it inevitably will be, so using critical readers prior to delivery is important.
  • Once a mistaken belief takes hold, it is very difficult to rectify, much more so than face to face, so needs to be dealt with quickly.
  • Students will study at different times, in different size chunks and at different paces.
  • Social interaction can be achieved with as much significance for its participants as face to face social bonds, and students will often self organise to realise this, for example in Facebook or in forums designed for other purposes. 
  • It is more important to explicitly structure different types of activity to maintain engagement.
  • Encouraging peer to peer interaction needs to designed in more explicitly with clear outcomes.

This indicates that there are different considerations in each mode, and if possible some blend of them may well be beneficial, for example, initial face to face meetings to start group projects can save a lot of time. The dominance of the lecture metaphor often prevents such consideration occurring as it represents the starting point, rather than one possible element in a mix. The lecture is so entrenched that many do not perceive it as a metaphor when considering their online design. This is a feature of metaphors in that they shape our response to a new environment. Martinez, Sauleda & Huber (2001) sum this up with respect educational metaphors, stating ‘we may not be aware of the pervasive influence under which we act, because our prevailing metaphors usually represent the undisputed state of the art in our community of practice’. This seems to be the case with the lecture, but it may be that as we enter later phases of the online pivot, there will hopefully be a more sector-wide shift to reframe the discussion.


  • Luis

    The Lecturer only mode is only justify by tradition. Are you now working by chance on The Digital Lecture? I would be interested to read it.

  • Tom Farrelly

    Dear Martin

    Having read this, I’m am metaphorically standing in front of the screen giving you a rousing applause; this should be required reading for senior education management and government.

    • mweller

      Thanks Amber – it’s a strange way of saying thankyou for saving education isn’t it? By implying it’s useless and we’re all being lazy for doing it.

  • Mandy Honeyman

    Thank you, Martin, for yet again providing us with a well considered response to an unconsidered backlash. Before CV there were some excellent examples of a move towards flipped lectures and blended approaches and not just by the experts. I just hope those quieter and more thoughtful efforts are empowered to continue by articles like this.

    • Hazel Rymer

      Well said Martin! It amazes me that it still needs saying, but it does.
      People feel secure in what they know, even when it’s sub-optimal. So people brought up in f2f lectures go on to deliver the same. Sadly the result of the rush to (poor) online brought about by COVID has produced poor learning outcomes and experiences for many and a new generation believing that online is inferior learning may have resulted.

    • mweller

      Thanks Mandy – yes you’re right, I worry that an ‘online = zoom’ backlash will take place now and we’ll find ourselves further back than we were pre-pandemic

      • Tom Farrelly

        Good point Martin. I think that may be a real possibility alright. The attitude may well be, ‘sure didn’t we give it a good go and it wasn’t really great, it was a stop gap when we needed it but not much more’.

  • Les Kirkup

    Sorry, I do not believe that shared learning experiences in the same physical space can be fairly mimicked by online learning offerings, no matter how well conceived, constructed or delivered. The ‘death of the lecture’ has been forecast many times It is what is done by students and instructors in the space that matters. Crucially, much of what can be done cannot be easily replicated online.

  • Ben S

    Thanks Martin. I think university students can get richer experience when technology is leveraged effectively. Over lockdown, I took a short course with London Interdisciplinary School. The learning design was very engaging, there were many opportunities to work one to one, in small groups, whole cohort interactions and daily interactions with lecturers. I felt really connected with everyone. I think combining the online models with different models of face to face instructions can be powerful.

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