Podcasts: enhancing or replacing normal lectures?

Online lectures are no substitute for face-to-face contact, argues UCU. Melanie Newman reports

February 25, 2010

Pre-recorded lectures: a means of providing "flexible learning" to students juggling other commitments or a way to phase out face-to-face contact time on the quiet?

Bournemouth University is encouraging staff to record lectures and upload the videos to the university website as part of a pilot project.

Managers say the system helps the university to avoid lectures being cancelled if academics are sick, attending conferences or away doing research, and that they are helpful to disabled, international and mature students with other commitments.

But the University and College Union has raised concerns that the online offerings will replace some face-to-face sessions.

Bournemouth staff, who have so far uploaded more than 200 lectures, are split on the issue.

Jennie White, senior lecturer in marketing, is quoted in a university brochure enthusing about the technology: "I record a lecture either in my office, sat at my desk, or in one of the lecture theatres and within half an hour it is available to students," she says.

The brochure adds that the online lectures are "helping to enhance the students' learning experience by providing flexibility and choice, at a time and place and in a format that suits them".

"Student feedback has been positive and this is reinforced by an excellent level of student engagement," it says.

But Paul Freedman, UCU branch secretary, said: "Our worry is that over time they will replace some lectures because we are already facing a great restriction in terms of lecture rooms. The fear is that they will become a substitute for face-to-face contact."

The union is also concerned that students will be tempted to skip lectures if they know they can catch up online later.

A university spokesman said: "It is definitely not our intention to replace live lectures with recorded lectures.

"We're aiming to blend technology into the learning experience rather than for technology to become the learning experience."

More than 40 other UK universities also use "lecture capture technology", he added.

"Contrary to some academics' fears, student attendance at lectures (that have been recorded) does not diminish any more significantly than normally may be expected."

The amount of contact students have with academics has become a focus of debate in recent years, with face-to-face contact often equated with a better educational experience.

When the University of Exeter carried out a study into student contact hours last year, both students and staff said that online learning should not replace face-to-face contact.

Research on podcasting by the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds also found that "the overwhelming majority of students rejected the idea that pre-recorded lectures could be used in place of the traditional lecture".

Students preferred to use podcasts as a means of reviewing or revising what had already been discussed in lectures, the study found.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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