…and what do you get “for free” by having a lecture theatre?

If I’m teaching a class in a lecture theatre, that theatre costs the university a certain amount of money. A lecture theatre is a sunk cost and you can easily make the case that it’s not worth it any more. As I understand it, there is some accounting done, somewhere, that means that if I have a one hour class in a particular theatre then that is charged to, or recorded against, my class. That is, there’s a cost associated with the use of that space.

If I use a different space, then there’s conceivably a different cost associated with that.

Taking the theatre away and teaching “online” is cheaper in terms of raw infrastructure. What it costs to heat, light and power a 100 person lecture theatre is far less than it costs to provide online content to 100 people.

But there’s a lot I get, as the lecturer, for “free” if I teach in a lecture theatre. When I stand in the front of a lecture theatre and 100 students sit in rows looking at me, I get a measure of authority and difference because of that spatial arrangement. That authority lets me say things like “do this assignment by this date” and simply by virtue of those words I convince 100 people to spend a lot of time doing something.

I get to signal, by showing up at the front of the room for an hour and managing the experience of 100 people, that I have a measure of expertise in the content that I’m presenting. I also get to demonstrate the more ephemeral skill of being able to lecture. We’ve tangled these skills up: expertise in content and expertise in lecturing. They aren’t the same. But the lecture theatre lets us present that they are.

When I have a time scheduled to be in a lecture theatre there is an implicit message that the lecture time is scarce and that the content has value because of that scarcity, even if my slides or a recording appears online later. Students who attend a scheduled lecture, or who choose not to attend, know that everyone who attends is having a similar experience of the content at the same time. There’s also the social signalling that they value the experience and the social proof of looking around the lecture theatre and seeing that other people consider the time, space and content to be worth attending over doing anything else.

If you take away lecture theatres but still want all those other things to happen I need to work extra hard very differently to build and exercise that authority, to demonstrate that expertise, to signal the value of the time and content. That’s because there are no conventions for those things yet.

Discovering what those conventions are will be… interesting.

(photo by Elijah Flores at Unsplash)

Published by bjkraal

I'm an Experience Designer from Brisbane, Australia. I use design to make better ways for people to work and play.

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