Here Comes The RoboLecturer!

By Dr Nandish Patel
Tuesday, May 5, 2020

There is no room for technology as a medium for teaching in higher education, is the sentiment I had when educational technology (edtech) was introduced in the last century. Higher education is, after all, the pinnacle of intellectual prowess, where students come to be taught in person by the best researchers and lecturers.

A human head silhouette overlayed with an outline of a brain and connections

Elon Musk is the most brilliant entrepreneur of the 21st Century. His vision is ‘robotaxi’, us all sharing our electric cars when we are not using them and he is well on his way with over a million electric Tesla cars on the roads already. Perhaps, our unfortunate lockdown has, whether I personally approve or not, heralded the robolecturer! Imagine, I design my course and load it onto Moodle, then my students access the lectures, tasks, and assignments at their convenience because they may have work commitments to help pay their fees. Then, I make timely contact with them to guide them and answer their questions. Surely, this is appropriate in the age of Google and Zoom.

Idoms have a surprising way of revealing themselves practically. Like all colleagues and students, I was thrown in the ‘deep end’ of online teaching because of the lockdown and it made me face my prejudices against eLearning and blended learning. Surprisingly, I found my new experience quite revealing and enjoyable. An experience which at one time in my teaching career I would have frowned upon as at best a secondary method of teaching and learning and at worst completely ill begotten, some kind of inferior substitute for proper HE teaching. On the contrary, my philosophy of teaching has permanently changed. 

My online teaching experience was not quite as robolecturer. Learning theory is etched in my mind. ‘Education is what survives after what has been learnt has been forgotten’, said the educational psychologist Skinner. The key aspect of what survives as education has to do with how students learn independently. Since I had already taught over half of the module in-person and the remaining online, it is more appropriately described as blended learning. Blended learning can help learners to develop into confident independent learners. Lecturers can design online activities specifically to enhance independence and even collaboration and then provide feedback in class.

Students’ experience of eLearning is of course the single most important consideration in assessing whether we now accept online teaching as a permanent feature of higher education, as we should in my opinion. For the two modules I taught online, my students’ online learning experience can be assessed as good, based on their appreciation of my teaching at the end of the module. The litmus test perhaps will be how they perform in their assessments.

I missed a fundamental aspect of classroom interaction teaching online, though. In class, I checked my students learning by not only asking questions and setting learning tasks, but crucially by observing their faces and eyes and their body language. The physical touch so to speak speaks volumes. I could not find a way online to replace such learning checks. It was especially problematical, and even unnerving because students choose to keep their cameras switched off, so I could not see them at all. (I wonder why!)

Having experienced online teaching, there is a strong case for blended learning in higher education.

About the Author

Dr Nandish Patel is a Lecturer at UWTSD London. He also takes part in DBA Research (Part II) supervision.