Photo by Damien Meyer
Artillery Row

A sea of staring eyes

Overcrowded lectures are bad enough, but Zoom and masks are incompatible with learning

Just over eighteen months ago, a seismic shift took place in British universities as they converted en masse to an online teaching model never before attempted. Naturally, there has been a mass movement to return to face-to-face teaching in the forthcoming academic year the cynical might suggest that universities have to justify their exorbitant fees somehow. Does this herald yet another small step to some sort of return to normal? Something to celebrate? I’m not so sure.

I find it endlessly bemusing that parents might start a riot if a primary school put thirty-five children in one class but, apparently, happily send their children off to all-too-often grim lectures in which hundreds of students listen to a detached lecturer reading PowerPoint slides. This model of mass-production education is a glorious cash cow for universities but I’ve always believed that a passive lecture is the very worst way to teach. Students seem to implicitly agree, judging by complaints from my colleagues about attendance, which apparently can drop as low as 20 per cent (against this background I take personal pride in managing to maintain a rate of around 50 per cent). 

A massive class is socially inhibiting

But, my colleagues insist (in a desperate attempt to justify their job titles), online lectures are not passive because students can ask questions. In my experience, not really. A massive class is socially inhibiting, and only once or twice a year do I get a question asked in public that is insightful and adds to the classroom experience for everyone. I don’t help the process, but not through choice. I have limited time, a syllabus to deliver, and a lecture theatre to vacate dead on ten minutes to the hour. (Once upon a time, a lecture was a guide to the syllabus, a way of facilitating students in what they needed to understand through their wider activities of research and reading. Now, the lecture is the syllabus, and there is often now an expectation that what is not said cannot be tested.) 

The logistics of university timetabling mean that it is frowned upon to schedule extra room time on the off-chance that it might be filled with questions. The reality is that students often prefer to save the most interesting questions until after the lecture, when their colleagues are vacating the room, so it is clear that some at least are thinking actively. It is just that the university educational model, dating back to the last century, is working against those who want to engage.

The sudden switch to online learning can be made to work, but from my own experience I have myself been at the receiving end of online teaching even in a small group, you lose the immediacy, your attention drifts, and your tutor loses the body language necessary to get a feel of how you are responding to the instruction. The big innovation is that Zoom accepts chat and online questions although to deal with this properly a second lecturer is required to field them, as splitting attention between class and syllabus is not easy but the vast majority of the questions are of the sort confirming my own experience: Could you go through that again? I missed that, could you repeat it? Unless everyone is in the same boat, these sorts of questions merely disrupt the flow.

Face-to-face lectures, with physical presence, have two advantages that must save them from total obsolescence. 

First, the lecture should be seen as a dramatic performance. The job of the lecturer is to tell a good story. Voice, flow, expression, timing and movement are all important to lift the material so that it grips the students and keeps their attentional levels high. This is much harder to do on Zoom. Imagine going to a Shakespeare play where you find that all the actors are seated behind a desk tucked away in the back corner of the stage, reading the script off a computer screen; they would be booed off the stage. 

Zoom classes are like lecturing to ghosts

Second, a good lecturer can read the room and modify delivery accordingly. Audience presence and response is critical for immediate feedback on how well the material is being received. There are many cues to this: facial expressions, restlessness, noises, all indicating whether a point needs to be explained again in a different way, or whether a change of pace is needed. This time the analogy is stand-up comedy. The greatest comedians can tell, night by night, what is working for a particular audience and what is not, and redirect their act on the fly. Zoom is terrible for lectures because it is utterly impossible to “read the room”. It is like lecturing to ghosts, not so much in the presence of students as being haunted by them.

Now we arrive at the big issue: university mask policy. Apparently, my institution wishes physical lectures to resume, but with the entire room masked. I cannot think of a worse way of inhibiting and attenuating my performance than being dressed up as a biohazard. It won’t just cut me off socially from the audience: a good lecture is physically demanding and I’ll be gasping for air after the first half hour (we have two-hour lectures here). Just as bad, where there used to be a room full of informative faces, sometimes bemused, sometimes appreciative, sometimes laughing, all will be replaced with a sea of expressionless staring disembodied eyes. The room won’t just be harder to read, it will be unsettling to be there, my flow will be ruined, and I’m sure I will have new nightmares as well.

Mandatory masking will be so damaging to the social benefits of a lecture (these being the only benefits) that I question the value of reintroducing face-to-face lectures at all under these circumstances. They may as well stay online until over-complying heads of HR are able to combat their own scientific illiteracy and natural tendency to be authoritarian bullies.

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