Universities across the UK are currently introducing lecture capture, which means that lectures will be recorded and made available to those who are unable to attend or who may want to review the class.
The move has been met with some criticism from staff. Many fear that attendance will fall as students will opt to stay at home and watch the video of their class. Most of us know that being physically present in the classroom is important because it gives students the chance to engage with the lecturer and with other students during and perhaps after the class. It is about being an active part of an academic community, rather than an adjunct to it.
Also, many lectures are flexible, involving questions and discussion. Granted, this is very difficult given the large lecture sizes that many deal with. Nonetheless, the flexibility to teach as one sees fit is very important. It would be a backwards step if lecturers felt constrained in any way by the technology.
Meanwhile, the right of students not to be recorded is part of the policies that are being introduced. Muting individuals in a class at their request is awkward. Will some students simply stay quiet? Will discussions fall flat because of a fear of being recorded, saying the wrong thing or missing the point?
Equally, will a lecturer feel as free to broach a controversial topic? Will they be prepared to go out on a limb and present a new argument considered left (or right) field? Will they be prepared to deviate from the schedule when they might feel it is justified by current events to do so?
In my role as a Universities and Colleges Union representative, and out of professional interest, I have spoken to many lecturers and found that most share similar concerns. Many admit that they will change the way they teach.
But the issues do not lie with lecture capture. The real issue, and culprit, is university culture itself. The prevalent consumer model of education promotes two things that, in practice, are likely to result in lecturers adapting what they teach when being recorded.
First, lectures have increasingly become part of a formal “delivery” of an academic “service” tied in to a pseudo-contractual relationship between fee-paying “consumers” and their “providers”. The language of “learning outcomes” that are in some cases compulsory and “mapped” to specific classes and assessments does not help. Students are socialised into seeing higher education as an overly formal product with clear specifications.
Second, and also a part of the consumer model, universities are no longer spaces where free speech is guaranteed. The wider political climate in which disagreeable ideas and words are sometimes associated with offence and psychological damage is manifest in numerous codes of conduct and zero-tolerance policies.
The existence of such policies – while they are seldom invoked – may make lecturers think twice before repeating a personal anecdote that illustrates a point, stating a strong view that they hold or cracking a slightly risqué joke. Issues related to trans rights, religion and #MeToo are among those where strong opinions or certain words can be taken as a breach of university policy, even when no law has been broken and when there is no intent to cause offence. Hence greater self-censorship and a certain conservatism in the classroom may result from lectures routinely being recorded and played back.
There is much to be said for treating the lecture hall and seminar room as a sacred space for the lecturer and his or her students; one where intellectual relationships defined by mutual trust and openness can be cultivated. Staff should feel confident to play devil’s advocate, to change tack and to use humour as they see fit. The lecture room should be their space, where they can exercise their autonomy in imparting knowledge, and in which they can hone their craft.
That universities do not provide guarantees that captured lectures cannot be invoked in student complaints or disciplinary proceedings is a problem. The argument that recordings will be more likely to provide evidence in favour of a lecturer subject to an accusation does not reassure. The issue is the importance of trust in the lecture room; a trust that is already undermined by the twin assumptions that education is the delivery of learning outcomes, and that staff and student codes of conduct are needed to regulate the lecture room and university.
So the issue is not lecture capture, but a conservatism that is encouraged through our consumerist and therapeutic model of education. In order to get the most from lecture capture, we need to re-establish the lecture itself as an arena for the cultivation of knowledge rather than simply its delivery, and as an intellectual space where trust rules over fear.
Jim Butcher is lecturer in the school of Human and Life Sciences and UCU union representative at Canterbury Christ Church University.