OPINION: Students entering university this year are likely to hear that "the lecture is dead". It's often claimed most academics can't hold the attention of their young audiences long enough anymore, and rapid advances in technology are making this traditional form of teaching redundant.
It would be very sad if this were the case. Live events have a certain magic, as capacity audiences who pay to hear TV personalities such as Sir David Attenborough or Dr Brian Cox speak in the flesh can attest.
Good lectures bring people together. They encapsulate what is important, occur in real time and are up to date.
But it's true that fewer live lectures will be held in future, as new teaching approaches are embraced.
Lectures won't die altogether, however. And my hope is that new technology – and more feedback to lecturers in particular – will ensure that most lectures at universities will be good ones, and teaching will get even better.
The lectures that disappear will be the bad ones.
Since the days of Socrates, dialogue has been critical to teaching and learning. And even good lectures simply cannot provide two-way conversations.
Traditionally, universities have relied on tutorials to provide the opportunity for exchange of ideas. But recently the sheer scale of enrolments has meant there is often not enough time for extensive tutorials.
Technology has arrived at the perfect moment, providing the modern solution of the flipped-classroom, where lecture and tutorial environments are reversed.
Rather than listening to a lecture in a group on campus and then going home to work alone through problems, modern students can listen to a recorded lecture alone and then come in to discuss problems in groups.
It makes sense, because you can't talk through a problem in isolation, but you can absorb a lecture on your own.
The catchy talk of "flipping classrooms", however, tends to obscure the real breakthrough – that new technology allows a lot more feedback in all directions.
In the past, academics got very little input about their teaching performance apart from the results of occasional assignments, the final exams and the student evaluation surveys that are regularly carried out.
Now, lecturers can see what is working and what isn't, in real time. They can see which parts of their recorded presentations are watched again and again – which parts cause problems for the students.
They can see which practice quiz questions they set aren't understood. Best of all, they don't have to endure specific criticisms. They can just look at the analytics to see what works and what doesn't.
As part of our commitment to feedback in the UNSW Faculty of Science, we now publish the aggregated formal student evaluations for each course, so everyone involved can see which courses are well received and which ones need attention.
There are some dangers, of course, with this TripAdvisor-like approach, but it is an important Australian-first initiative, with the benefits of student feedback outweighing the possible problems.
Most lecturers want to improve their teaching and, with the help of new technology, they can now do that before the formal student ratings are collected at the end of a course.
Technology also allows students to talk to students, students to talk to lecturers, lecturers to talk to students, and lecturers teaching the same course to talk to one another.
For academics, computer-marked quizzes, student-to-student learning, and recorded lectures have helped ensure that their workloads remain feasible, even with today's large student numbers.
For students, practice quizzes online allow them to measure their progress whenever they so wish. And this kind of painless feedback on their performance can also be preferred.
Tutorials have never been ideal for shy people. Now, less self-assured students can shelter behind technology and gain confidence as they see the daily progress they are making.
The current system also rewards the ability to pick up information quickly, not necessarily the ability to process difficult concepts and create new ideas.
The quiet revolution in teaching that is underway means that the speed with which a student absorbs knowledge is no longer such a significant factor – those who need more time to grasp concepts can watch a tricky maths problem being solved as often as they need, for example.
A properly managed electronic community can also help reduce the isolation some students feel in large cohort courses.
A personalised approach to education was the centre of the Socratic and Oxbridge systems of one-on-one teaching.
The new virtual learning communities may not be the same as the traditional captivating lectures delivered in cloistered colleges. But the real cloisters and real lecturers will continue to exist; only now, with the help of electronic aids, the one-on-one teaching approach will be available to a larger section of society.
It has never been like this before.
Professor Merlin Crossley is Dean of Science at UNSW.
This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald