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Apples and Oranges and Lectures and Learning

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I recently read (unfortunately, I can’t find the reference, or where I read it–it was in print, not online, believe it or not–so this will have to stand as anecdotal) about a study at a school using lecture capture technology. The study compared students’ use of recorded lectures (made available on the web) in two different classes (same academic subject, covering the same content). In one course, the professor lectured through the whole class period, with almost no opportunities for interaction (he took questions at the end) or any activity by students except for listening and note-taking. In the second course, the professor lectured for only brief periods, asking students to step forward and present at various points in the class or to repeat questions that they had sent to him in emails, and integrating discussions and questions throughout the class.

Both classes were recorded–audio and video–and made available to students afterwards.  In both cases, standard, simple, lecture capture (a fixed camera, a microphone on the professor and an omni-directional microphone in the room) tools were used.

When the recordings were made available, it turned out that students accessed and viewed the second class–the one that included interaction and active participation from students–even though much of that interaction was not well-captured in the videos.  They reported in interviews that they found the class itself to be interesting and engaging, and wanted to review what the professor had said–they felt (does this seem paradoxical?) that they were so interested in class that they might have missed something.

The first class, the captured straight lecture, was not one that students accessed or viewed at all.  A few students viewed the page, but interviews afterwards showed that they did not bother to watch more than the first few minutes of the recording.  It wasn’t something that they felt was useful either in reviewing for studying, or for understanding the material.

And beyond that, students reported that, because the full lecture was available online, they didn’t feel they needed to bother to attend class–and attendance did, in fact, dip significantly after the first few sessions.  So not only were they not using the captured lectures, they were less likely to even attend the actual, in-person lectures.  That didn’t happen in the more interactive class–students there continued to attend–felt that they would miss something important if they didn’t, even though the recordings were available.

I’ve been thinking about this, because it reinforces something I’ve always noticed myself, but also because there are some surprises there.  I’ve always had big reservations about lecture capture (which unfortunately, too often, is the only model used when thinking about podcasting in higher ed, and even more unfortunately, when thinking about what administrators call “distance learning”).  It seems to me that a good lecture (and they do exist, and they are a good thing) is very much a live performance–and it depends to a large extent on that context of live performance for its effectiveness.  A recording can have some value–but it’s not a transparent representation.  It’s a re-presentation. So it’s taking the performance out of its native medium, plopping it into another, different medium.  It loses all the advantages of the original (live, face-to-face) medium, and it gains none of the advantages of the new (online, asynchronous) medium. (The term “lecture capture” is a significant one.  It captures the lecture–nails it down, cages it)

This is why, to me, an “online class” (or “distance learning”) is at its least effective, its least interesting, when it’s a series of recorded lectures–unless (which is very rare) those lectures are specifically and intentionally produced for the new medium–then they’re mini-films.  An online class should be designed for the online medium–to take advantage of the affordances (hyper-links, multimedia, asynchronicity, threaded discussion, etc., etc) of that medium.

But that study made me think more of an “apples and oranges” question.  While confirming my own experience that straight capturing of a straight lecture is pretty much a waste of time and technology (and may even decrease student learning–that was a bit of a surprise to me), that study also indicates that a “lecture” is not always exactly a lecture.  When I think of comparing two classes, or two captures, I want to remember to also think of comparing apples to apples.

People often talk about how online classes are necessarily inferior to face-to-face classes, but they say this with built-in assumptions.  They compare a terrible online class with an excellent face-to-face class.  Similarly, I think that study indicated that it’s not just the fact of the recording that is important–it’s what has been recorded.  A good class is still valuable as a recording (contrary to my own automatic assumption).  It’s the quality of the class, not the recording, that makes students want to return to it, to think about it, to come back for more.

Faculty development (even with all its varieties and all its difficulties) should always focus on the goal of making classes better–which is always a matter of making students more active, more engaged.  Then everything will be apples.  And it’s good to remember that sometimes the fact that a class is interesting, is engaging, actually means that students don’t get all they can out of the class–they want to, and need to, return to it again.  So in those cases, the recording just might be a useful thing for them.


  1. […] So that’s a sacrifice, and sometimes it’s an acceptable sacrifice, but what troubles me is how often we make that sacrifice while also neglecting to take advantage of what can be added by having a recorded video.  We lose most of the advantages of live performance, and we gain almost none of the advantages of online video.  It’s a tragedy, and it’s the huge flaw at the very heart of the very idea of “lecture capture,” as I’ve blogged about before. […]

  2. I read and reread your posting and I had this awful queasy feeling — thinking about folks just posting captured lectures, as if they were providing training films. I have this awful feeling that for every one of us knocking ourselves out to do interesting stuff with our online courses [or at least, trying], there is someone taping flat-file talking-head lectures.

    Our new committee Online/Blended Learning Considerations focuses on concerns other than the nature of our courses. Am I being ridiculous, old and crabby, etc. to think that maybe there should be a parallel set of concerns about the nature of our content?

    bobby brody

  3. As a student I must say that really got the most out of classes that were heavy on Discussion Board interactions. I would check Blackboard several times a day for some classes just to see what others were writing and how they responded to others. I agree that making the learning as interactive as possible is the best way to really engage the students, but information without perspective is hard to absorb. I found that I was better able to understand course material in classes where professors actively engaged in DB because they pushed every student to expand upon their original ideas and in the process we all started to push each other and ourselves.

    Some professors have used podcasts and I think it’s something that adds to the overall quality of the class, but it’s not 100% necessary. I think a student’s biggest fear with online learning is that they are going to have to read the course book and essentially “teach themselves”. Whether the professor’s presence is felt via podcast, DB replies, personal emails, comments on Wikis/Blogs the most comforting thing for students is that it is felt.

  4. Very interesting, Joe. You’ve identified a problem I need to face in my own teaching. I haven’t “captured” lectures in the classroom technology or webcam “talking head” sense, but I’ve “Camtasia’d” them in the form of slides with images and an audio narration. The last time I taught my course (in Sp 09) I noticed that student use of them was dropping–it was way down from the previous term. And yet performance in the class didn’t seem to be noticeably declining. So maybe they aren’t quite as necessary as I thought, or as they seemed to be a year or two ago.

    Your laying out of all this made me think about the reality that my strategy doesn’t reproduce what I do in class. I never do straight lectures–I do the Socratic thing–I talk for five minutes and then start interrogating the subject with the students. Or I take a student question and open it up for a few minutes. Then I’ll go back to my narrative. Well, you can’t do this on your own with a laptop and microphone. So…absent real-time interaction, what’s the next step? That’s what I’m thinking about now.

  5. I really enjoyed this, Joe — not least of all the way you avoid that easy and oversimplified reasons to approve or disapprove of this or that.

    I’m also struck that you’re the first person I’ve seen really pondering the oddness of the term “lecture capture.” It is a bit jarring, and not just because I have a low tolerance for off-rhymes. I think it’s significant that “capturing” a “lecture” (of all things) has become a desideratum. We might want to ponder that further.

    The words we use and how we use them tell us a lot about our mental make-up, and you don’t need Steven Pinker for that. The idea that we could/should capture a lecture says a great deal, sort of in the same way we can make syntactic as well as denotative distinctions between “information” and “knowledge” (though I can say I have both information and knowledge, I can’t say that I’ve lost or misplaced knowledge, but I can say that I’ve lost or misplaced information).

    I think there’s an underlying desperation to the idea of capturing lectures, in the same way it’s comforting to stockpile books or articles you really don’t have time to review or assimilate. (Mea culpa.) A lot of this has to do with the presumably Internet-induced “staccato” quality of thought Nicholas Carr writes about, our (and our students’) foreshortened attention spans: we can’t sit still, don’t have the time or inclination, at present, to take it in, but it’s comforting to think we can save it to a disk and maybe get back to it later. Of course, it would be a mistake to cast that as part of what we would call “learning” or “education.”

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