Post-Covid: The Bitter End of Lecture Halls

Adam Fein
5 min readAug 25, 2020

By Adam D. Fein and Tania P. Heap

There may be nothing more iconic in higher education that the traditional lecture hall. Quasi-auditoriums that serve as the interior bones of the external Georgian architecture we’ve known for centuries. And the lecture. The historical, customary manner in which one who has knowledge synchronously passes information along to hungry minds; a practice dating back to 500 B.C. In my twenty years of work in higher education, the topic of lectures and lecture halls — their effectiveness and ongoing necessity — has been commonplace. Despite a preponderance of evidence-based research suggesting that changes to lectures and lecture halls would benefit quality, not much has changed. In fact, in the undergraduate space, many public and private universities are still centered around both the lecture and the lecture hall.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a difference. The first picture was taken 5 years ago and the second, 120 years ago in 1900! Shouldn’t the physical space we use to educate our students reflect what we’ve learned about cognition and the science of learning?

Not that there haven’t been any content delivery innovations across academia. North Carolina State University pioneered the Scale-Up model. Scale-Up stands for “Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies” and was designed to offer faculty a different and more effective way to teach high enrollment courses. SCALE-Up rooms “facilitate interactions between teams of students who work on short, interesting tasks”. Students work in teams and “the instructor is free to roam around the classroom — asking questions, sending one team to help another, or asking why someone else got a different answer.” Simply put, as stated in this 2014 NIH study,

By following a simple strategy involving Active Learning across the 3 primary domains of Bloom’s Taxonomy (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor), instructors can dramatically improve the quality of the lesson and help students retain and understand the information. By applying our strategy, instructors can engage their students at a deeper level and may even find themselves enjoying the process more.

There are impressive examples of this model at the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois, TEAL at MIT, the Hunt Library at North Carolina State and now here at the University of North Texas with the CLAW framework. This work is moving higher education in the right direction, but it is the exception to the rule. If we know that long-form lectures and the rooms that support them aren’t ideal for knowledge transfer and attendance is marginal why do we still insist on subjecting our students to these spaces? Does it take a disruption the size of a global pandemic for our industry to finally take action? Maybe so.

Part of my job as Vice President for Digital Strategy and Innovation is to work with my cabinet colleagues, President Neal Smatresk and our Digital Learning Research Center to look ahead, listen to our students and faculty, be nimble and prepare for the campus of tomorrow. In the last six months, like many of you, I’m constantly being asked what post-Covid higher education will look like. There are many answers to that question, but I suggest we start by repurposing the lecture hall. By 2025, across higher education, these spaces should undergo evidence-based redesign and be transformed into active, flexible learning spaces. Lectures should be consumed online and post-Covid universities and colleges will already have far more of them available online than before. Research on flipped classrooms show better learning gains when students can consume one-way lecture information on their own time — especially when the lectures are chunked into consumable 5–7 minute segments — pausing and rewinding as needed. Instructors can spend the valuable in-person time on deeper learning activities. Covid has pushed universities to provide many more student services online, so the support needed for a lecture hall transition is already in place.

As campuses look to lower costs due to the pandemic while navigating upcoming challenges such as the 2026 enrollment cliff, and we consider the savings around allowing more staff to work remotely, building new, large physical spaces is cost prohibitive. A better strategy is to take care of existing spaces and optimize them. When we must build, we should build for multimodal, flexible learning with a green footprint. The great news is that this doesn’t eliminate the best parts of why people choose to study on-campus. In addition to rich, experiential classroom learning in spaces like the active learning classrooms described above, removing the lecture hall still allows for the beautiful happenings of the residential experience to continue: running into your future partner in the local coffee shop, being down the hall from a professor who’s research inspired you to pursue your major, taking in a football game or just gathering with your fellow classmates outside the student union. It’s a best of both worlds strategy. It is time to start designing for digital-first and not be afraid to change the landscape — one that has looked the same for far too long.

Our Digital Learning Research Center and Dr. Troy Abel, Assistant Professor of Design at the University of North Texas, are working together on ongoing research to investigate the impact of a low-tech vs. a technology-enhanced flexible classroom environment, while keeping in mind scalability, affordability, sustainability, and safety. Preliminary findings from our mixed-methods study indicate, among other trends, that students value (1) portability and transferability of software and hardware that enables them to learn in different physical spaces, whether at home or in multiple locations on campus; (2) reliable access to power, and (3) opportunities to display to and share work with other students, via either analog or digital means. If you are interested in discussing this study, sharing ideas, or partnering on a collaborative project we would love to hear from you: contact Dr. Tania Heap ( or Dr. Cassie Hudson ( at the University of North Texas for more information.



Adam Fein

Adam D. Fein (PhD, Illinois) is the VP of Digital Strategy & Innovation at the University of North Texas. His research examines multimedia learning performance.