The new lecture hall: Enhanced and safer

Colleges should take the opportunity presented by the pandemic to reformat aging lecture halls into next-generation active learning environments, making them more engaging, providing better retention of subject matter and adding greater flexibility for future changes in technology.
By: | August 31, 2020
Photo courtesy of The Beck GroupPhoto courtesy of The Beck Group

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of stress among college students, their parents, school faculty and staff over whether it’s a smart idea to fully reopen campuses while the virus continues spreading across the country.

Tobias Newham, The Beck Group

Tobias Newham, The Beck Group

Since the pandemic surfaced in this country, its impact has fueled concerns about large gatherings of people in close proximity. Most schools quickly reacted by offering remote learning to comply with social distancing, which has led to shuttering lecture halls for the immediate future.

However, it will be tough to convince students to continue just taking all online courses for the entire 2020-21 school year. Students, for the most part, still want the experience of being on a college campus, particularly if they, or more likely their parents, are paying costly tuition for that privilege.

But there’s more at stake than figuring out back-to-school plans. Lecture halls may be the next victim of the pandemic, which has seemingly given opponents of the “sage-on-a-stage” approach new ammunition to use against traditional lecture hall-style learning.

Besides virus-related safety concerns, critics of lecture-hall teaching, a practice which originated in Western Europe nearly a millennium ago, contend that students are less likely to be fully engaged in learning in this type of environment.

Multiple studies have concluded that students passively listening to their professors in lecture halls can negatively impact their academic performance. Research has found that students retain as little as 10 percent of their lecture only days afterward. And a 2014 Harvard study showed that waning student attendance is typically associated with lecture hall-style learning, with an 80 percent attendance rate at the start of the term plunging to nearly half at the end of the term.

Perhaps, the pandemic will serve as the catalyst that finally seals the fate of lecture halls once and for all, which have been losing favor over the past several years. If that’s the case, what will higher education institutions do with those unused spaces?

One may argue that while traditional lecture halls are obsolete, there’s no need to take a “throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater” approach to these spaces. Instead, schools should take this opportunity now to reformatting aging lecture halls into next-generation active learning environments, making them more engaging, providing better retention of subject matter, and adding greater flexibility for future changes in technology.

Renovated movie theaters serve as inspiration

Because lecture halls are typically built with sloped floors or tiered seating, it can be quite difficult to find new uses for them. Higher education officials may want to tear a page out of the playbook used to redesign movie theaters as a model for revamping lecture halls.
New forms of entertainment over the years, such as DVDs and more recently, streaming services, have forced major design changes in movie theaters in order to get people off of their couches and back into theaters to watch the latest flicks.

To achieve this goal, theater owners removed rows of well-worn seats and added comfortable reclining lounge chairs with adjustable arms, installed state-of-the-art sound systems, and provided better food choices that are served to moviegoers without leaving their cushy seats. This redesign strategy paid off: customers don’t seem to mind paying more for the enhanced experience, which has yielded higher profits even with reduced seating.

Using renovated movie theaters as a guide, colleges and universities can convert their lecture halls into a highly engaging environment for the current and future generation of students.

How would this work?

Lecture halls can be easily configured to create deeper platforms that would include pods of three to four students with flexible furniture. The pods would allow for a blended classroom environment, where students could process information taught in the typical didactic model. This would enable students to collaborate with their pod mates to put theories into practice through problem-solving challenges.
The pods also could work with other pods through video conferencing and similar technology. This could occur across multiple locations, allowing lectures to be simulcast from a central host site.

Students will greatly benefit from this approach because it enables them to absorb more information that is reinforced through various teaching methods. They also will have the chance to interact more with other students and learn skills they will need in their careers
This new form factor also has the added benefit of improved social distancing. With some additional precautions, these spaces could be used in situations where COVID-19 measures remain in place.

Occupancy for these renovated lecture halls would fall in a range between 50 percent and 60 percent. But fewer students in lecture halls would be offset by using technology to broadcast the same material to many locations or even time-shifted through recorded material. That means more students using this technology won’t be shut out of popular in-person courses taught by star professors.

And it wouldn’t take long to reformat lecture halls because the construction methodology is remarkably similar to the upgraded movie theaters. Based on our experience in multiple remodels of cinemas, these conversions can be accomplished in a condensed time frame, such as starting and finishing a project during winter or summer breaks.

The combined impact of the pandemic and technological advances in academic learning is a powerful motive for turning college lecture halls into a relic of the past. Amid predictions of possibly other major microbial outbreaks in the not-so-distant future and efforts to improve student learning, the moment is ripe for higher education institutions to seriously consider converting antiquated lecture halls into highly functioning spaces designed to enhance student learning and safety.

Tobias Newham is an Associate Principal at The Beck Group, a Dallas-based integrated design-build firm.