With the Christmas break upon us, students will no doubt be agonising over whether to spend their Boxing Day afternoons watching The Wizard of Oz on BBC Two or catching up with all those early morning lectures they missed last term on their university’s shiny new video platforms.
The company that provided my own institution, the University of Edinburgh, with what it claims is the first such platform “designed to foster active, engaged, and personalised video-based learning” boasts that it will increase student engagement “seven-fold”. The university itself is only slightly less evangelical; its website describes how reviewing lectures will “deepen learning and understanding, support exam preparation, or [help students] prepare for lessons”.
How could anyone possibly object to this kind of learning aid – especially one that makes life easier for students who are dyslexic or non-native speakers?
But even if lecture capture really does help students, it needs to be introduced in a way that takes into account the concerns of the academics asked to use it.
For example, recordings can change the way lecturers teach. Being aware that your words will be recorded and replayed many times makes most people more nervous, and potentially less spontaneous.
Moreover, if you are worried that students may share your lecture online, you may well avoid sensitive topics, which, although appropriate for a small and prepared audience, could be misunderstood when taken out of context. Even if piracy is unlikely in practice, its very possibility reduces lecturers’ ability to feel comfortable in their workplaces.
Such concerns were raised in numerous consultations. But while the university published some advice on the new system, the implications for workload were not mentioned. Staff are now expected to review, edit and potentially even subtitle recordings, yet there is no guidance on how teaching, research and administration duties might be reduced to accommodate this extra work. To achieve the promised seven-fold increase in student engagement, lecturers will doubtless need to use a bundle of student engagement tools, entailing a huge amount of extra work that they don’t want to do in the 60th hour of their working weeks – and for which the university doesn’t want to pay extra.
To be fair, staff concerns have begun to be addressed. In its guidance notes, the university acknowledges the possibility of inappropriate use, and mentions privacy issues, intellectual property rights and moral rights of lecturers. But there is no actual protection against piracy, no realistic means of chasing it, no serious penalties for it, and no legal protection for its victims.
As in many other institutions, lecturers can opt out if recording is deemed inappropriate. Nonetheless, students are still encouraged to expect recordings across the board, so the unpleasant responsibility of disappointing them falls squarely on the lecturer.
If lecture capture did lead to a promised land of vastly improved student learning, staff might forgive these new discomforts. And some studies do suggest that it has a positive impact. However, others point to a negative one – and, overall, the evidence suggests that the impact is fairly negligible either way.
The disquiet might be dismissed as the accidental result of the inevitable mess that accompanies the introduction of a new technology. But consider what Edinburgh stated the scheme’s “primary aim” to be: “to enhance student satisfaction with learning resources and meet the requirements of accessible and inclusive learning practices.” In other words, it’s a transaction: we give students lecture recording, and they give us extra points in satisfaction surveys.
Thus, institutional enthusiasm for lecture recording is only very loosely related to its efficacy as a learning technology. Instead, it’s a PR tool for managing students’ perception of the university: for ticking the required boxes for accessibility and inclusivity, not making teaching more accessible and inclusive. But for this gambit to work, students need to be convinced that recording is crucial for their learning. Hence, this is where universities focus their efforts.
So, in summary, just follow the yellow brick road – and keep the dog away from the wizard’s curtain.
Simon Fokt is a learning technologist at the University of Edinburgh.