Chris O'Hagan argues that videos of lectures and presentations are an easyway of spreading the good word and good practice
Lectures are still the mainstay of curriculum delivery, and if the lecturers are star performers why not allow students to see them in action and learn at their own pace
The suggestion in the Dearing report that video recordings of "star lectures" could be another useful technological tool for improving student learning in higher education has come in for almost universal scorn.
It was perhaps predictable that traditionalists would wish to preserve the hermetic nature of the live lecture and would fear any challenge to their autonomy from examples of good practice.
Yet video is the most widely used medium for training in industry. One wonders if videos illustrating best practice could have helped prevent the recent scandal of young deaths under the surgeon's knife in Bristol. Even lecturers improve with training.
It is particularly disturbing that some respected educationists have joined the chorus of scorn. Is this partly out of ignorance?
Possibly, but it is also a knee-jerk reaction based on an over-zealous opposition to the lecture as a method in general. The lecture has its drawbacks, which were well discussed nearly 30 years ago in What's the Use of Lectures by Donald Bligh, but it is still dominant in higher education today and is likely to remain a significant delivery method for some time to come. It makes good sense to encourage the best from the lecture on behalf of our students while also seeking more diversity.
How videos can help
Most obviously, good examples of varied use of the "55-minute slot" can help lecturers learn new techniques, improve communication and enhance student learning.
They could include ways of promoting good interaction with students in large venues. Just as a student can progress better with one textbook rather than another, so the availability of different lectures on the same topic could help address learning differences.
We all have different ways of hanging understanding on our mental pegs, and anyone who has taught extensively on a one-to-one basis knows how difficult it can sometimes be to help a concept "click" for a particular student.
Calling in a colleague or recommending another text can unblock a problem. Why not a video? Their availability in a learning centre can help with missed lectures, particularly after an extended absence. Everyone who has tried to catch up using another student's notes knows how incomprehensible these can be. We all structure, abbreviate and condense in different ways.
Good lecturers who like interaction with and between students sometimes complain that a video by its nature cannot interact.
This is not quite true. One student at the University of Derby said that he found videos of lectures "more interactive" than the real thing. He meant the ability to rewind and re-view.
A student misunderstanding a point in a live lecture may be all at sea intellectually for the rest of the hour - there is no reverse button.
There are also ways we can make videos interactive in the more conventional sense. Derby research students have fielded live questions in cinematic showings of lectures. In the learning centre, small groups of students can watch a video and stop it to discuss issues. The lecturer can provide viewing notes including small assignments to help embed understanding.
Costs, time and Vesol
All this is very well, but making these videos is time-consuming and expensive. A lot of lecturers will react badly to the presence of technicians in the room, and there are always confusions between lecturer and technical staff. Such difficulties can be overcome with patience and training.
However, the innovative system developed at Derby's video autoproduction and editing system for open learning (Vesol) makes production nearly as easy as using an overhead projector.
The teacher videorecords while giving a lecture or presentation (with or without an audience) to produce a complete recording in the time it takes to give the presentation and without any technical support.
The presenter switches between cameras/inputs - long shot, overhead projector, document, main screen, whiteboard, computer output, VCR output and so on - as appropriate so the programme will be visually interesting. A radio microphone ensures normal freedom of movement and excellent sound quality.
Lecturers can preserve their natural presentation style or add to it. They are in complete control.
Different systems and uses
Systems have been developed for lecture theatres (Vesol), laboratories/workshops (Velab), seminars and solo recording (MiniVesol). As well as being a tool for staff development in lecturing and presentation techniques, Vesol recordings mean that core material including lectures, laboratory/ workshop demonstrations, seminars and videoconferences can be distributed to part-time students and distance learners.
Repetitive lecturing can be replaced, releasing staff time for seminars, tutorials and research. At Derby we have even converted Vesol programmes to delivery over the worldwide web.
Because there is a continuous sound and vision track, plus the original visuals the lecturer used, a multimedia author can produce a web-based version in a tenth of the time it takes to create an hour of material.
Ease of use
A good lecturer will be continually reflecting about the progress of the session. To add "Which camera now?" to this reflection is soon accommodated.
We are not talking about rapid-shot changes as in a movie or television show. On one outing outside the university, I used a portable system in a seminar on integrating technology into teaching and learning. A seasoned 60-year-old lecturer in pharmacology in the audience was completely unconvinced. Later, he tried the system for just a minute or two and then said: "I want one."
There is another kind of sceptic who claims lecturers will never use it because it threatens their jobs. To which a quick response might be: "If all they do is lecture, perhaps they should go now!" But apart from all the other jobs lecturers perform, videos have a limited life and the logistics of wholesale, indiscriminate use defy the imagination. And remember, Vesol is always under the control of the lecturer.
At Derby the psychology department has run extensive tests on the use of video. The response has generally been neutral or favourable. When videos replaced a large number of live events there were no significant differences in student performance.
Delivering innovative video education resources to students everywhere (Diverse) is a teaching and learning technology support project (TLTP3) led by Bolton Institute with partners at Wolverhampton and Derby universities and Cheltenham and Gloucester College. It involves resource production for career development, learning to learn, biology, business studies and psychology.
The careers strand will also investigate student use to develop their presentation and interview skills. A videotape and handbook are available free to show systems in use and installation. We do not produce or instal systems, which can cost from Pounds 6,000 to Pounds 10,000, and there are no royalty charges.
'Star lectures' revisited
It is perhaps unfortunate that the word "star", with its entertainment connotations, was ever used in this context, but that is not a reason to dismiss the idea of providing exemplars of good lecturing practice or to dismiss the whole concept of lectures on video for flexible learning.
I hope I have given some food for thought, both on how such videos can be a useful addition to the range of resources we provide for students, and on how they can be made economically in a way that gives control to the lecturers themselves.
Chris O'Hagan is dean of learning development at the University of Derby.
Derby's Centre for Educational Development and Media is one of nine in the UK offering free support to higher education. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org