Enlightened Self-Interest; or, Why I Record my Lectures

As another term begins, sticky issues of ethics and efficiency reassert themselves on my worried mind.

This is the first year that students are matriculating under the new fee-structure in England and Wales and the fine line between teacher and commercial purveyor of intellectual goods is becoming increasingly blurred–or so we have been told.

‘They will expect more for their money’ we are continually reminded by university administrators. ‘We need added value if we are going to compete in recruitment’.

This pitch, as far as I am aware, is being given to lecturers across the system, regardless of the size or reputation of the institution. If you have escaped unscathed thus far, consider yourself lucky.

Yet, sitting down with the first-year cohort last week seemed no different from previous years.  Half a dozen 18-to-20-year-olds sat around the table with me, chatting excitedly about history, what they loved about, what they hated about it, and what they were going to do when they graduated. They seemed just as idealistic and eager (and slightly over-stimulated) as the students who had proceeded them.

But, you came here today to hear me speak about recording lectures.

When I was a Masters student, I had a very strange experience. Being the only MA History student in my year, I was often privy to departmental gossip and chit-chat on the ‘way things were headed’ in academia.  One main point of contention, it seemed, was the recording of lectures.  The pedagogical advantages notwithstanding, they feared that the university (as a somewhat evil and faceless corporate entity) would eventually accumulate enough recorded lectures to dispense with the staff entirely. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of the university bureaucracy, they imagined, someone was saying

‘Why pay for expensive research staff to teach introductory modules when recordings of a previous lectures would do just as well. I mean, how much does the standard American or French Revolution lecture change year-to-year?’

Whether these learned men and women were entirely serious in their apprehensions I cannot be certain, but they seemed quite adamant that lectures were to remain live events. At least one of them explicitly forbade the personal recording of his lectures by students.

Although I respect the opinions of these and many other lecturers who are genuinely apprehensive about their intellectual property and job security, I am personally committed to recording my lectures. I would never dream of demanding my co-workers follow suit (despite the rather chaotic results this has engendered on past team-taught modules), but I do have a number of selfless and selfish reasons for my approach, which I would like to put forth.

First, the selfless. Most of these are not new ideas; they are the usual suspects when attempting to convert speakers to lecture-capture technology.

  • Learning Styles: Not all students are auditory learners. In fact, many have a great deal of difficulty with maintaining long-term focus, or with translating oral communications into either written notes or long-term memories. Although repetition of (and visual cues to) key ideas can assist these learners, sometime the ability to pause, rewind, and re-listen makes all the difference to their comprehension.
  • Revision: Notes are not always intelligible several months on.  I have stacks of notes from academic conferences that are now meaningless to me because I omitted key points which, at the time, I was sure I would remember without notation. Being able to compare written notes with the actual recordings can be invaluable for exam revision.
  • Illness and Absence: Students, especially first-years students living in halls of residence, get sick. Sometimes from viruses, sometimes from recreational activities. But they all feel poorly at one time or another and miss a lecture or two. Punishing them by withholding lecture material is a bit heartless.  It is also, sadly, the time of their life when grandparents and other elderly relations often pass away. A death in the family should not preclude them from obtaining learning resources.
  • Hand-Eye Coordination: I speak quickly. Very quickly. Sometimes far too quickly for anyone to reasonably note down everything I am saying. Pedagogically, I would rather cram as much information as humanly possible into my one-hour lecture, and provide the means for multiple-listenings, than speak very slowly and provide a fraction of the content.  This is a personal choice, but one which my past students seem to have appreciated.

As I said, pretty standard stuff.  But here are the more juicy reasons that I record my lectures.

  • Quality Control: I have a very good recording device (my iPod touch). By placing my recorder on the lectern, I can ensure that the audio is crisp and clear and generally void of obscuring coughs. Because I have recorded the material myself, I can also edit it before posting on-line, removing discussion breaks, my own bouts of coughing, and any jokes that did not go over very well.
  • Version Control: Some lecturers have worried about (or been victims of) rogue recordings and re-editing. By maintaining my own complete recording of the lecture, which I can post immediately to a wide audience, I am protecting myself from unjust accusations regarding content or tone.
  • Playing to Honest Laziness: Most individuals who pirate (video, audio or otherwise) are doing so because they are cheap and lazy. Why go all the way to the video store and pay £4 when you can get the film for free from your home computer? By offering a high-quality, easily accessible version of my lecture on-line, students will not need to make their own copies (or even purchase a Dictaphone) and thus the number of versions floating about is likely to be minimal, aiding points one and two.
  • Combating End-of-Term Fatigue: Last year, owing to technical difficulties, I did not put the final lecture of my survey module on-line. There were two exam questions on the final which could really only be answered if you had attended the final lectures. Although entirely accidental, it seems to have separated the wheat from the chaff in some cases and this may be a way for combating end-of-term fatigue in future years. Nothing ends a year right like your final lecture being packed!

There are of course many concerns regarding lecture recording beyond the use or misuse of the recording itself. Having recorded all my lectures last year, in  both upper and lower level modules, I have some thoughts on these concerns.

  • Attendance: The number one complaint about recorded lectures is that students will not come to class if they can watch or listen to the recording on-line. Indeed, this fits in well with the aforementioned ‘Honest Laziness’. Yet, after 30-odd lectures I noticed no discernible difference in attendance from previous years.  End-of-term fatigue and looming assessment deadlines had a far greater impact on attendance than my recordings.  Moreover, the number of downloads for a given lecture was usually more than double the number of absentees. Even if every single absentee downloaded it (hardly a foregone conclusion), they were outnumbered by those who were merely reviewing the lecture. Pedagogy trumps laziness. And even if it did not, whose to say that those absentees would have come to my lecture anyway? Hangover trumps curiosity nine times out of ten.
  • Job Security: On-line courses are certainly on the rise, but students still prefer live teaching to virtual teaching, and that is not likely to change any time soon; at universities where lectures are so large that they have to be divided into two halls (one with a video link), students still usually fill the ‘live’ hall first. Even if higher education does becomes a completely commercial endeavour, living, breathing lecturers are going to be needed. Moreover, if your entire lecture experience can be recreated in a 45 minute video, perhaps you should reconsider your lecturing style (or go into film production!)

So, as I settle into 2012-2013, I will continue to record my lectures. It does much good, and little harm.

*Image courtesy of  Marijn de Vries Hoogerwerff

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