This is why traditional lectures are better than watching a video

Effective engagement and social interaction are key, says Stefan Rennick-Egglestone

September 24, 2015
lecture, lecture hall, students

As a relatively new lecturer, I’ve been intrigued by the range of professional voices advocating the replacement of traditional lectures with recorded video. Some universities, such as the University of East Anglia and the University of Adelaide, have even announced that much of their teaching will move online, to free up more staff time for tutorials and seminars.

Among the most frequently proposed advantages of video as a teaching resource is that, unlike a lecture, it can be delivered asynchronously, so that students can choose when to engage in it. This can certainly make life easier for students with other commitments, and can also provide a “souvenir” of a module, which can be used for revision, or even returned to post-graduation.

What video cannot replicate, however, is the enforced regularity of attending a lecture at a fixed time, every week, which can provide a useful structure for learning. I have experimented with the production and integration of bespoke videos into my own teaching, and much of this material has proven popular and effective. But access logs indicate that many students watch the videos only in last-minute binges before a coursework deadline, instead of during the week in which they were directed to watch them. An experienced colleague believes this is because they know it is there; the danger is they may never engage effectively once other activities become more pressing.

The social nature of traditional lectures is also valuable. The presence of an entire cohort of students in one place provides an opportunity for ongoing discussion after a lecture has finished. A good lecturer can also respond to their audience’s level of attention (as adduced, for example, by the amount of fiddling on phones) by varying their pace of delivery or introducing short group discussions to enhance engagement.

In my own case, I try to incorporate short segments in each lecture during which students contribute their own thoughts on a topic. This helps to maintain concentration and allows an opportunity for them to share expertise – even when audiences are very large. But each year brings a different cohort, with varying levels of willingness to participate, so I tune how these segments work on a lecture-by-lecture basis.

None of this is possible with recorded lectures. Sitting in front of a screen watching someone speak for 50 minutes can be a lonely and disengaging experience, and might also be scorned as a cost-saving exercise. I do capture and publish video of my own lectures, but these tend to be used by students who are catching up after illness.

By contrast, bespoke videos, produced as a supplement to a traditional lecture, can create a perception of added value, and the flexibility of the medium offers a substantial opportunity for academics to express themselves creatively. But video should be seen as a unique medium in its own right, and as a profession we really need to understand its unique attributes to work out how to use it most effectively.

My own videos focus on topics that are quick to explain, and the evidence is that students find them memorable, permitting them to provide an effective and efficient foundation for the teaching of more complex topics. But I do not see how they could adequately substitute for it.

We also need to bear cost in mind. Even as someone with substantial prior experience in video production work, both within and outside the academy, my own estimate is that a video on a particular topic will take me at least five times as long to produce as the equivalent lecture slides. Given that the resultant video will be harder to update than a lecture, and may also need to be regularly remastered in response to technological change in delivery mechanism, archival video may actually turn out to be quite an expensive medium.

Personally, I'm interested in exploring teaching strategies that make use of very informal videos that are short and cheap to produce, and that are not intended to be archived for long-term use. These might include web-cam video to provide feedback on coursework, or to clarify unexpected issues that have arisen during a module. But I won’t be abandoning the lecture theatre any time soon.

Stefan Rennick-Egglestone is an assistant professor and research fellow in computer science at the University of Nottingham.

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