Empty lecture theatres: a relic of the past or here to stay?

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It is being increasingly suggested that the rise of technology could lead to traditional university lectures becoming a thing of the past.

Universities are now accepting more and more students onto their degree programmes each year, but are finding themselves struggling to adapt to these rising student numbers. This is being seen at Newcastle University, which has a total of 27,191 undergraduate and postgraduate students at its Newcastle campus for the academic year 2018/19. In Newcastle, however, the main emphasis has been on providing accommodation for these increasing number of students, leading to a rapid growth in the provision of private accommodation such as Verde, alongside expansion of many University-managed accommodation such as the new Park View Student Village development. In comparison, some other universities are feeling the strain on their ability to host large numbers of students in their lecture theatres.

In August, Lancaster, East Anglia and Brunel universities announced that lectures would be running as late as 8pm. Despite attempts to cater for the masses of new arrivals, universities have nonetheless faced criticism. Attempts in Durham to introduce 8am lectures were ultimately rejected following protects from students and staff. Low lecture attendance has also been identified at Birmingham University, where a Literature Professor in November emailed his 400 students a picture of an empty lecture theatre after no one came to his lecture.

The 2018 Student Academic Experience Survey suggests that the average time-tabled contact hours for UK students has actually increased over the past three years, though by a mere 20 minutes per week up to 13.7 hours, while the number of hours students actually attended their classes for has stagnated at 12.1. Despite the low number of contact hours leading to widespread debate over whether students are getting value for money, which is further intensified by tuition fee rises, traditional lectures are evidently not very well attended.

It is hoped that technology may be able to plug this gap and ensure that students continue to learn despite their low lecture attendance. At Newcastle University this is enabled through an increase in the use of ReCap to record large lectures which is beneficial not only for catching up on missed work but also for revision purposes.

Simon Mortimore, Head of information Technology at three University of Oxford colleges, expressed support for the recording of lectures, describing how “it allows those students to go back through the content at their own pace. Lectures can also be live-streamed around the world, with video conferencing bringing presenters from overseas into our campus.”

Last modified: 21st February 2019

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