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The death of the amphitheater

amphiAsserting that it could be replaced by videos distributed via the Web seems to have condemned lecturing from the chair together with the amphitheater. Being pushed in the forefront by the MOOC movement, videos would close all lecture halls, students would become active in their learning. In short it would revolutionize teaching and send the traditional university in the dungeon. Moreover, it would make big savings by recovering these spaces and allowing one single teacher, the best one if possible, to teach worldwide via the Internet. A dream for those considering the university as any capitalist enterprise: investment and productivity gain!

Yet it is not so simple. Is the amphitheater really dead, watching videos will really replace it? And more generally can technology solve all the troubles of teaching and learning in the 21st century?

It is fashionable to illustrate conferences with images of the old times, showing students asleep in front of a distinguished professor delivering his course from the pulpit, meaning that “nothing has changed “. I could not resist illustrating this blog with a very well known picture. Look at it carefully. The teacher is reading his notes, not caring at all about his students. Some sleep, some read another book – today they would watch their tablets and computers.

My experience is much more nuanced. I was lucky, as a student and as a teacher in Science, to work in small amphitheaters; however I recognize that, even in the presence of a few dozen people, a one-way discourse may be rather boring. The university of Oxford, also, which has an exceptional tradition of providing to each student a personal tutor, who follows him/her continuously, see amphitheaters being deserted. This phenomenon is widespread in all Western countries.

Does this mean that courses delivered from the chair in the amphitheater are obsolete and should vanish?

Curiously some students resist: when we set up, in 2007 in my university, live broadcast lectures so that the students whom we could not accommodate in one theater only, could follow their courses from home, the rumor ran that we would suppress the lecture and deliver only videos. The Dean had to come down in the amphitheater to overturn this rumor. Yet this teaching was quite grotesque: the capacity of the hall is limited to 500 students and we enrolled more than 2000 in that course so that we had to establish a rotation of groups so that everyone could attend periodically some of the lectures. Students were worried about the disappearance of the face-to-face time and the amphitheater was always packed, when, at the same time, a thousand of those from the other groups, followed from a distance, mostly in real time! The same attitude was noted at EPFL, in Lausanne, a pioneer in Europe in the use of MOOCs. They have suppress a number of parallel courses in the first year of study and many students gather in their beautiful Rolex center, to watch the videos of their courses instead of the past amphitheater presentation. However some do not appreciate this new way of delivering knowledge. EPFL officials are not convinced that they will never suppress all first year amphitheaters.

So the good old amphitheater is not dead. Imaginative teachers have sought ways to make it more lively and students more active. Among the most innovative ideas, the use of clickers individual boxes or smartphones. The course is divided into short sequences of about 15 minutes and, in between, the teacher asks questions and makes the participants vote with their device. Responses are anonymous, so no risk of feeling ridiculous in front of their comrades; it’s fun because the questions are short, simple in appearance and it regularly breaks the rhythm. The pedagogy becomes active. One may build interactive scenarios where students must work together with their neighbors, then confirm or change their previous vote and invent many other activities. Students engage in a real active thinking: this shows that flipped pedagogy can be used in the traditional amphitheater. For those objecting that not all students possess smartphones and that providing clickers is expensive, there is a cheaper way: students can vote by showing one of four different colored circles printed on a piece of paper. An app, on an Android smartphone allows the teacher to count the votes photographing the audience.

Does this mean that video is unnecessary, at least for students on campus? Absolutely not! Our experience, shared by many colleagues, is that recording a course improves the quality of learning. Students no longer frantically take notes. They know that if their notes are incomplete, they can always come back later to the video. They listen better and the teachers earn a lot of freedom because he can afford additional illustrations, knowing that all students can pick them up in online videos.

Confrontation of ideas in face-to-face exchanges remains an important dimension in education. Technology is a big opportunity to transform the pedagogy but does not improve teaching and learning by itself. What is important is how it is used. The same applies to the old approach and I strongly believe that they have go together in the future.