Should all university lectures be automatically recorded?

What will become of the lecture? Video camera via Vereshchagin Dmitry/

Universities across the world are considering whether to start automatically recording lectures. Some students are voting for it. And the IT industry has created some seductive products to record lectures, a process also known as “lecture capture”. Some onlookers expect a hesitant response from the higher education sector, which is often portrayed as cautious about taking up educational technologies.

Yet lobbing new resources into complex settings deserves caution. Our universities are rich human ecosystems and, as such, they can prove fragile in the face of interventions. A new technology such as the automatic recording of lectures does not just add something good to the learning context – it re-configures it, but in uncertain ways. Perhaps to inspire, perhaps to disrupt but, most likely, to create new dynamics with both positive and negative effects.

The positives are pretty easy to imagine. For instance, some lectures are challenging (or obscure) and so need to be heard more than once. Recordings might free the student to fully engage at the live event while taking more measured notes on the second viewing. Those without English as their first language may be particular beneficiaries. Meanwhile, lecturers can review students’ use of their presentations – perhaps noting sections that attract frequent re-visiting and so identify points where repair or elaboration might be useful.

But we have a responsibility to ensure that, on balance, any disturbance enriches rather than disrupts the vitality of the teaching and learning ecosystem. The potential downsides of lecture capture gather around three themes: changes to student experience, changes in teacher practices, and the re-shaping of institutional strategy.

Making recordings of lectures freely available to students could lead to a fall-off in attendance of the live lectures themselves. There is scarce research on whether it does and, besides, in order to know the answer to this we’d need this experiment in recording lectures to become properly established.

But if attendance did drop, it would risk further de-personalising learning. A live lecture cultivates students’ capacity for sustained attention to a narrative unfolding in real time, and also reinforces habits of prompt and effective note-taking.

Just in time for the lecture. Man laptop via Rock and Wasp/

Whether or not attendance is disrupted the organised recording of lectures by universities – versus the under-the-desk recording by students – risks putting too much importance on the lecture in the learning experience. This could be counter-productive for staff wishing to stimulate a wide range of study practices. This danger is that the lecture may increasingly be interpreted by students as being “the main thing”, prompting them to anxiously reproduce its contents in assignments. Similarly, ready access to replays may encourage procrastination and then episodes of “binge studying” around the time of examinations. Such study habits are known to be unhelpful and so we can do without further temptations towards them.

Performance anxiety

Another anxiety concerns the physical presence of the lecturer in front of his or her students: their gestures, movements, facial expressions, and eye contact. Students using recordings will miss much of this, while lecturers may need to inhibit action to accommodate fixed cameras.

More controversially, lecturing may morph into performing: with modes of presentation that play up to the camera (or microphone). Perhaps most worrying would be if lecturers start avoiding controversy and taking risks in both the content they use and their presentation. Content, because a recording is unforgiving in its permanence and vulnerable to uncontrolled circulation beyond its intended audience. Presentation, because lecturers may become more cautious about interactive formats: if students show uneasiness about being recorded taking part (or, indeed, demanding consent to be recorded doing so).

Educational technologists speak of “re-usable learning objects” – and recorded lectures could fall into this category. Suppose a lecturer was asked to speak at a conference but it awkwardly clashed with a lecturing commitment – it might be tempting to grab last year’s recording and simply re-cycle it.

But a recorded lecture may not always serve the lecturer so generously. Metrics on how many students view these recordings may soon become part of a “big data” story – integrated with metrics of course evaluation and workload as a contested part of an academic’s personal development planning or a university’s audit.

Who’s watching?

Perhaps the biggest institutional concern will arise around how all this appears from outside. With study resources migrating to virtual learning environments and now classroom activity migrating to join them, we risk an apparent “MOOC-ification” of teaching – where all lectures could be viewed as part of a massive open online course. This could leave parents, among others, asking difficult questions about the content and value for money of higher education.

Personally, I am in favour of lecture capture: at least, a version in which audio is presented along with any slides. But I am more concerned that the occasion for its use should be entrusted to individual academics and not imposed upon them: in short, it should be opt-in. And I am most concerned with the need to highlight the responsibility that this creates: lecturers must reflect on their practice and articulate clearly to their students why or why not to capture what happens in the classroom. I believe students will value, understand and respect their reasoning.