A response to Cambridge University’s plans to place lectures online

Every day we are deluged with information and misinformation emanating from the world’s media. Yet, arguably, nothing has matched yesterday’s excited flurry of announcements regarding Cambridge University’s decision to place lectures online. First of all, we were treated to the astonishing claim that ‘Cambridge University’ was the first university to move to an online provision. Certainly, this must have puzzled all of those institutions that have been operating remotely for a decade or more. Then there was the vague and inaccurate reportage which inferred that the university and its thirty one colleges were effectively shutting up shop for a year or more. I found myself having to explain to my own mother that all that had actually been cancelled are the lectures that take place in faculty buildings – those tedious rituals during which hundreds of people crowd into a lecture theatre to be talked at for an hour or more.

What the news stories failed to make clear is that colleges will continue to provide seminars, tutorials and supervisions as normal and that this is where the real learning takes place at universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Similarly, libraries will be open and colleges will be full of students who will probably be delighted that they can catch up with their lectures at a time of their choosing – probably late afternoon.

Yesterday I wrote a social media post arguing that the traditional lecture represents an achingly traditional approach to education that has been superseded by more progressive and interactive modes of learning. Acknowledged experts shuffle into crowded and uncomfortable rooms to read from yellow and disintegrating handwritten notes. These lectures are often delivered in a monotone or stage whisper and provide little or no opportunity for questions or any sort of involved discourse. I remember desperately trying to write notes without elbowing the unfortunate individual sitting almost on top of me but that is perhaps more down to the perils of being left handed than anything else. Interestingly, few people who replied to my post had much positive to stay about lectures. My cousin, Rebecca, who read Natural Sciences at Downing College was a keen rower and she says that she was so exhausted when she returned from training on the river that she would routinely sleep through her morning lectures. However, my friend Sarah, who is now an English lecturer at Cambridge University, suggested that my jaundiced view of lectures was a little misplaced – at least for English! She pointed out that the only reason why the university authorities have placed the lectures online is because of the inevitable risk attached to crowded lecture theatres. Furthermore lecture schedules are written in May and lecture theatres are very low down on the list of university facilities to be reopened as the lockdown gradually eases.

The relative importance of lectures is to some extent subject dependent. I studied history at Cambridge and found lectures to be a very poor substitute for my tutorials that usually occurred in college. The opportunity to learn from and study with some of the sharpest historical minds in the world was invaluable. My tutors were simply incredible. Scholars such as Professor Brendan Simms and Professor Matthew Innes helped shape my intellectual landscape and they constantly challenged and inspired me to improve. In Peterhouse, I felt most fortunate to spend time with brilliant minds such as Dr Carleton Paget and Dr Jonathan Shepard. My final year ‘Wagner and German Nationalism’ seminars with T.C.W. Blanning were sensational and I never quite got over the excitement of spending so much time with such an undisputed legend. My second year dissertation on the development of familial relations in the seventeenth century would not have happened without hours of gentle support from Keith Wrightson, now Professor of History at Yale. He used to spend a good deal of time lighting and relighting his pipe as I formulated my responses. This is what made Cambridge so special for me and my tutors really taught me how to think and surely this is what you really want from such an experience.

As for lectures, I must confess that I did not attend very many for the simple reason that they seemed to constitute an antiquated and uninspiring approach to learning. However, I do think that I worked very hard and made full use of all the wonderful opportunities that Cambridge offered.

My clear advice to universities is that it is probably time to embrace more progressive teaching methods and assign the traditional lecture to the pedagogical dustbin of history. By all means deliver lectures online but only to supplement the face-to-face learning which should be taking place within the context of seminars, workshops and tutorials. This provides a context which is much more stimulating and educationally valuable. It allows young people the opportunity to become confident and active participants in their learning.

Given that universities now charge such high fees, students should surely expect a personalised approach which builds upon the outstanding quality of teaching routinely found in all of our best schools. Traditional lectures all too often constituted an economically efficient ‘one-size-fits all’ solution which was always bad for our intellectual health and is now considered a risk to our physical health.

I have a strong suspicion that traditional lectures will never return because they have been superseded by much more progressive teaching methods and modes of delivery. This move has been long overdue and I think more UK universities will announce similar measures. However, do not imagine that there will be any great appetite to reinstate a mode of learning that is moribund and unspeakably dull. In any case, as we all know, real learning never took place in such places anyway.

Jeremy Quartermain