Universities all over Australia are welcoming back students – but what will the learning experience look like?

The Australian National University’s vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt told staff last week:: “We need our teachers to be more than just people who stand at the front of the lecture hall or before a video camera. We need them to connect with their students in richer ways. This might include fewer lectures, and those that we do deliver, will be memorable and sophisticated, utilising technology.”

Campus Morning Mail reported his remarks: “It would be easy to make the university into an on-line supermarket of inexpensively delivered courses and divert the savings into research or other funds.”

And The Guardian reported: “Australian universities are prioritising ‘Instagram-worthy’ experiences on campus, while cutting building costs and face-to-face lectures, according to an external report on university digitisation. Darren McKee, the chief operating officer of Murdoch University in Western Australia was quoted in the report saying: ‘The face-to-face mass lecture is all but dead’.”

And read this in THE: Berkeley scraps plans for great big lecture theatres.

We asked educators to respond to these comments. Shirley Alexander, deputy vice-chancellor. University of Technology Sydney; Sarah O’Shea, director of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University; Marcus O’Donnell, director, Cloud Learning Futures at Deakin University; Sally Male, chair in engineering education, University of Western Australia; and Amy Wong, research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, formerly of the University of Queensland.

Have lectures ever really been alive?

By Shirley Alexander: Avid readers of higher education news will have noticed a recent run of articles proclaiming the lecture as “dead”, with universities reported to be ceasing expensive building programs, and/or no longer building “lecture theatres”.  But have lectures ever really been alive? 

To answer this question we need to explore what we actually mean when we use the term ‘lecture?’ One form (and one which I’m sure many have experienced) is the practice of conveying information. This can range from someone engaged in a one way communication of knowledge, perhaps even reading Powerpoint slides to an audience (who presumably already know how to read) to someone who is incredibly inspiring and motivating to listen to. Do students learn from these? It depends on what the learner does, and how he/she/they perceives the context.

Another teaching activity sometimes described as a lecture, is one in which the teacher gives a clear explanation of an important concept, and then asks students to apply that knowledge to solve a problem or complete an exercise that makes use of that concept and creation of personal meaning. Students might submit their own responses and then have the benefit of seeing a variation of responses from their peers, after which they might refine their own understanding. Do students learn from these experiences? It depends on what the learner does, and how he/she/they perceives the context.

My original question “have lectures ever really been alive?” can only really be answered by analysis of whether they have led to good student learning outcomes. The prevailing evidence is that the more active learning approaches to ‘lectures’ as described in the second scenario are much more likely to achieve that. But I also sound a note of caution as hinted at above. No teaching method can guarantee learning independent of what the learner does and how they perceive the context of their learning.

There is a certain amount of ‘invisibility’ around the resourcing of online teaching and delivery

The best way lectures can be delivered in the new environment is by adopting a diversity of modalities of delivery including face-to-face, online with small supportive groups. It is offering students that choice between different delivery modes that is most optimal.

Effective teaching and learning can be delivered online and face-to-face but academics need both time and additional specialist skills to do that. Simply, you can’t just deliver the face-to-face content and put that online. It won’t be effective. Creating online content is time consuming and may require fundamental changes in delivery. Academics may need to shift their existing skill set and also need recognition of the time this involves. To do that, they need additional support.

There is a certain amount of ‘invisibility’ around the resourcing of online teaching and delivery – having taught online for over a decade I know how significant this time commitment can be. Recent  research also indicates this,  such as Cathy Stone’s work in this regard. Aside from the time commitment, there are also equity implications. Academics and educational developers need to remain mindful of the context of learners. It is recognising that not all learners have high level NBN, high uploads and downloads or  access to even basic technology – content needs to be delivered according  to the context of the learners within the institution. Yes, we must have interactive strategies but we also need to recognise that not everyone can be online at the same time. It’s more important to offer options and flexibility in order to make learning truly equitable . We  cannot assume that all learners are the same or have access to the same equipment. Students from a range of equity backgrounds have indicated the diversity of ways used to access online content for their studies which can range from driving on-campus, sitting in McDonalds’ car parks or using friends or family. Some may only have pay as you go data plans which are notoriously more expensive and may often be shared with other family members. Hence, offering a diversity of modalities of delivery is key, a combination of online, face to face and also, asynchronous mediums such as recordings, podcasts and static downloads   

To be effective in online delivery and development – professional development for academic staff and a greater investment in educational technologists and technology is also needed urgently. The educational technology support staff are absolutely key; they understand how to maximise available platforms and how to ensure that all students are getting the same learner experience. 

With colleagues, I have interviewed over 1,000 students from a diversity of backgrounds. Overwhelmingly, what  makes a positive learning experience for them is often just the accessibility of people to talk to. It can be as simple as knowing who to contact if they have a problem, just knowing there is someone at the other end of the line can make all the difference for both retention and progression.

Sarah O’Shea is a Professor and Director of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Sarah has over 25 years experience teaching in universities as well as the VET and Adult Education sector, she has also published widely on issues related to educational access and equity.


Stone, C., & O’Shea. S. (2019). ‘Older, online and first: Recommendations for retention and success’. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

Drane, C.F., Vernon, L. & O’Shea, S. Vulnerable learners in the age of COVID-19: A scoping review. Aust. Educ. Res. (2020).

The Walking Dead

By Marcus O’Donnell Higher education is currently emerging from a fraught year of constraints and experiments where COVID19 forced a move away from on campus experiences to online only delivery. This seems to have emboldened some institutions to finally bite the bullet and scrap traditional lectures. So is the lecture dead?

The reality is that the lecture has been dead or dying for a very long time. Students have largely been voting with their feet. One lecturer in my own institution famously went viral a few years ago when he tweeted a picture of his empty lecture hall at the start of trimester with a cranky rant.

The persistence of lectures is largely driven by the fact that they are the most economical way for universities to deliver an in-person experience to large numbers of students. We know however that it is not an effective or engaging form of learning. Active learning where students are set tasks, asked to solve problems, asked to engage with their peers – not only mimics how we learn in real professional situations – it is now widely confirmed as a more effective form of learning.

Over the last few decades Australian universities have all committed themselves to turning out graduates who are digitally literate, critical thinkers, problem solvers, and excellent communicators. These are the learning outcomes that employers constantly demand. We cannot deliver these outcomes in programs which are primarily lecture-based because this is not just about “knowing stuff” it’s about “doing stuff”.

The danger in the post-COVID transition for higher education is that institutions take the worst of our old methodologies (ie hours of one way information transmission) and simply transpose this to online recordings. At Deakin we have adopted what we call a “Cloud First” philosophy. This takes as a given that all students engage with the university through digital tools – one quarter of our students are fully online, but all students who attend our physical campuses also engage with learning materials online. We have become very adept at producing these online learning materials in smart engaging formats, in our best courses we match this with active learning seminars where students learn together in more interactive ways. But transformation to this way of teaching and learning is hard and expensive. It takes leadership and resourcing.

Lectures have become the key-way universities organise staff time allocation and physical campuses have traditionally been organised around large lecture theatres, so until we address these elephantine structural issues lectures will persist, just like the walking dead.

Students still benefit from explanations and demonstrations

By Sally Male Universities have diverse student demographics, teachers, teaching and research strengths, campuses, relationships with employers and communities, and funding models. The meaning or existence of classes such as ‘lectures’, ‘tutorials’, and ‘practicals’ varies by discipline.

How we teach must adapt to changes with requirements, contexts, resources and constraints. Desirable graduate attributes have changed as work and society have changed. For example, the significance of addressing sustainability has increased in recent decades. Technology has provided
opportunities. Students now access numerous resources online. Simulations, models, virtual and augmented reality and online interactions are used in teaching and learning. In 2020, constraints changed due to COVID and we adapted.

Requirements for diverse students in diverse disciplines in diverse universities will be diverse. Requirements include equitable opportunity and support to learn in order to lead a successful life contributing to society, and inclusive opportunity to develop identity. Students still benefit from explanations and demonstrations. In classes that might be called lectures, teachers complement explanations and demonstrations with active, interactive learning activities. For example, students consider carefully designed problems and are led in discussion about the common alternative conceptions revealed by these.

By taking advantage of technology, and with thoughtful implementation, blended synchronous classes are likely to be one element of the range of classes and learning activities that meet future requirements. Face-to face classes can be convenient and involve rich experiences and opportunities
to establish relationships for a school-leaver living in college. A student with work and dependents might prefer to join online. A student outside the dominant cultural group might prefer to ask questions via chat despite sitting in class. A student with poor vision might attend face-to-face and
watch their laptop more easily than a projected image. Rather than abandon lectures, in many circumstances, and especially to achieve equity and inclusion, there is opportunity for blended (face-to-face, and online), synchronous (with students participating concurrently) lectures, involving
instruction and carefully designed, active learning.

Why we need live lectures

By Amy (Wai Yee) Wong Live lectures provide an invaluable opportunity for students to engage in synchronous interactions with lecturers and their peers. These social interactions are unique in live lecturing which is core to co-create knowledge and skills that are meaningful to the context of students’ university and lifelong learning.

The use of educational technology such as online polling and collaboration tools not only enables these interactions among a large cohort of students, either in a lecture hall or in a virtual environment, but also provide an inclusive opportunity to involve the less ‘out-spoken’ students to have a voice to connect with the lecturers and their peers. To make the best out of the live lectures, lecturers play a pivotal role as knowledge translators, co-creators and change agents developing partnership learning communities with students (Advance HE, 2016). 

The current pandemic has encouraged lecturers to adapt their teaching practices to a digital world. Reflecting on my recent experience of delivering live lectures online for an evidence-based practice (EBP) course in health professions education, I argue that lectures underpinned by purposeful pedagogical design work for higher education. For example, as a co-creator to construct meaningful knowledge with students, I have to know the existing level of their understanding of a topic and take students to a high level of learning. I heavily rely on real-time feedback from students during the lecture through an online polling tool which provides me with instant results of student responses showing in a bar graph or a word cloud. Based on the students’ inputs, I translated the abstract concepts of EBP to concrete examples in the healthcare setting that are relevant to the students’ practical experience. Students suddenly realised how the theoretical knowledge can be applied to the real-life context to make an impact on enhancing practice. This also creates new ideas for further professional conversations and inquiry.

The process of co-constructing knowledge is a distinctive feature achieved through synchronous interactions with students during live lectures. The personal interactions in live online or face-to-face lectures are irreplaceable by other means of delivery in higher education. To make live lectures truly work for student learning, we need to take the advantage of technology to deliver lectures with innovative design supported by sound pedagogical principles to connect, inspire and empower students to create partnership learning communities.


Advance HE (2016). Essential frameworks for enhancing student success. Student engagement through partnership.