A few Christmases ago, I remember that someone from my family switched on the TV to watch a televised theatre performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays – could have been King Lear.
It was really, really bad.
It wasn’t that the acting was poor or that any other element of the performance was obviously flawed. It was the basic concept of the production. The decision to take a play, designed for a face-to-face theatre audience; film it without the supporting apparatus of a TV studio; and then expect the TV audience to engage with it as easily as the audience in the playhouse simply didn't work.
So much was lost. The emotion, the passion, the humming excitement and the interactivity of the piece, didn’t communicate. I can’t remember whether I turned it off, or left the room – but it didn’t hold me.
My concerns about recording university lectures lie on the same grounds. Thinking back to my own time as an undergraduate, I can well remember Justin Champion’s lectures on political thought, or Jonathan Phillips’ talks on the Crusades. The thing that made these experiences so memorable was not simply the information that was communicated, but the passion and the inspiration with which these subjects were presented.
Memories of these events stand out as crucial moments among my recollections of undergraduate life and, at the time, they played their role in guiding my decision to choose an academic career. I guess the same is true for many graduates both when they contemplate the high points of their university career; and when they encourage others to seek a degree.
So on these grounds I have to confess that I have always been sceptical about the value of recording lectures.
Any substitute for the actual “experience” can only ever be that: a substitute. Still, that does not mean that I am against them altogether. Recently at Nottingham Trent University, we’ve been holding an open discussion on the whole question; canvassing views and consulting colleagues from other disciplines. The findings have been mixed and very interesting.
On one hand, there were those who seemingly could already hear, in their mind’s eye, their students saying: “I didn’t come to today's lecture because you said you were going to put it online so I thought I would just download it.”
Several feared a future scenario where lecturers could find themselves presenting to a largely empty lecture theatre where the student contingent simply hadn’t turned up, but might (or might not) download the recording on to their tablets. This is certainly a grim image; a world where students scarcely interact either with their lecturer or each other, but simply passively watch recordings in their own rooms.
I confess that the thought had crossed my mind.
Still, on the other hand, I was encouraged to hear from others (who had some prior experience with recorded lectures) that they hadn’t experienced any appreciable drop in attendance.
Attendance is one element of this issue, but there are others. Potential problems raised in our discussion include the possibility that students might feel inhibited from contributing in class if they know their views will be mounted online (eroding the sanctuary of the classroom as a safe space for road-testing new ideas). There were also fears about adding another layer of technological complexity (and its potential fallibility) to lectures.
These are entirely reasonable concerns, but actually I have come out of this conversation feeling more upbeat than when it began.
My mood lifted when I ceased to think of “lecture capture” as a dangerous replacement for lectures and more as an accompaniment. I can see that for exam revision it could be very useful to recap a lecture given many months before. Also, students who, through no fault of their own, were unable to attend a lecture, might well appreciate the chance to view it online.
Then there is the potential for universities to reach out to distance learners or to those who for whatever reason simply are not able to attend university in person. Using this approach in these contexts makes perfect sense.
As should be clear, I’m trying to make up my mind about this issue; wondering whether it’s something I could use myself. Nothing will persuade me that recordings can replace the real thing, but as an auxiliary teaching device it might well have substantial utility. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.
Nicholas Morton is a senior lecturer in the College of Arts and Science, School of Arts and Humanities at Nottingham Trent University.
College of Arts and Science, School of Arts & Humanities