February 25, 2017

Online learning for beginners: 7. Why not just record my lectures?

Why not just put your lecture capture lessons online? Image: MediaCore, 2014

Why not just put your lecture capture lessons online?
Image: MediaCore, 2014

This is the seventh in a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other six are:

I gave a short answer to ‘Why not just record my lectures?’ in the fourth post in this series, but it deserves a fuller answer. It is natural that faculty and instructors want to use an approach to teaching that is not only familiar and comfortable, but has been used for hundreds of years, so has passed the test of time. However, there are several reasons why recorded classroom lectures are not a good idea for online learning, at least not as the main form of delivering online courses.

Start with the students

When designing online courses, you need to start by thinking about the context of the online learner. An online learner is usually studying in an isolated situation, without other students or the instructor physically present. There are many ways to overcome the isolation of the online learner (dealt with in later posts), but giving them recordings of 50 minute classroom presentations is not one of them.

In a classroom context there are many interactive cues or contexts – such as the response of other students, the look on students faces – that result in slight but important adjustments on the instructor’s part, and which help maintain student concentration and interest. Even if a live class was present at the time of the recording, these cues are usually lacking when students are studying a recorded video at home, in the library, or on the bus.

There is also research evidence that suggests for every hour of presentation, online students need to spend between two to three hours of additional time going over the recording, stopping and starting, to ensure they have fully understood. This is a good benefit of recording compared to even a live lecture, but it also ups the student workload, especially if there is other work to be done, such as readings, assignments, and practical work. Managing student workload is a key factor in ensuring high completion rates for online students.

Lastly, even when recorded lectures are strongly integrated with other activities, such as subsequent classroom discussions or assignments, students often skimp on the video preparation, either skimming the video or not watching it at all. The more isolated the student, the more likely this is to happen.

The changing nature of learning in a digital age

One of the main reasons for moving to online learning is to help develop the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society and particularly in a digital age. These new forms of knowledge – such as Internet-based sources and rapidly changing content – and in particular the skills required to master these forms of knowledge, such as knowledge management, independent learning and use of digital media – are not handled well through lectures. In particular the lecturer is doing the knowledge management, the modelling and the organization of content, not the students.

In other words lectures require a more passive approach from the learner which is not suitable for isolated learners who need to be active and engaged in their learning, as much for motivational reasons as for developing the knowledge and skills needed. (The same could also be true for classroom based students, incidentally.) Indeed, one of the principle reasons for moving to online teaching is to move away from the limitations of lecture-based classes, and to exploit the benefits of online study.

Video as a teaching medium

Asking ‘Why can’t I move my lectures online?’ is really the wrong question. It assumes that what I’m doing in the classroom will work equally well on video for online students. The right question though should be: ‘What is the best use of video for students studying online?’

In media terms, a recorded lecture is mainly a talking head, with, if students are lucky, textual illustration (e.g. Powerpoint slides). There has been a great deal of research on the best mix of voice, images, and text in video for teaching (see, for instance Mayer, 2009). To incorporate the factors that make the use of video effective for learning, the type of lecture usually delivered in a classroom would need to be considerably redesigned to make it more effective for remote learners.

In addition, there are many other, more creative and relevant ways than lectures for using video for teaching, such as demonstrations of equipment, experiments or processes, animation, and examples drawn from the real world to illustrate abstract concepts.

Successful uses of video for lectures

It could be argued that MOOCs, the Khan Academy, and TED talks are all examples of the successful use of lectures on video. However, they are not the typical classroom lecture delivered three times a week over a 13 week semester.

I have heard instructors say that their MOOC lectures are much better than their classroom lectures, because they put more time into the presentation. MOOC developers have learned to adapt the 50 minute lecture to better fit the online format, with shorter, 10-15 minutes videos, and shorter courses. This is fine for non-credit programming but does not fit the Carnegie-based 13 week semester model for credit programs. Costs for producing successful MOOC lectures run over $100,000 a lecture, production costs that are not sustainable for moving large numbers of classroom lectures online.

Sal Khan is an inspired lecturer who uses voice over combined with on-screen digital notes. His technique is not the same as recording a classroom lecture with whiteboard notes. For a start, the audio and screen quality is much higher, but it is also the technique of constructing teaching in appropriate chunks of recorded time that requires considerable thought and preparation. This is not to say that classroom lecturers could not do this, but it would require once again redesigning the classroom lecture.

Lastly, TED talks require a great deal of preparation and rehearsal, and again are much shorter than the typical classroom lecture.

So, yes, recorded video can work online, but it needs to be designed specifically to suit the mode of delivery. There are also other ways to design online learning that do not necessarily require so much work, and other uses of video for teaching that are more appropriate.

What are the alternatives?

Too many to list them all here, but one is to use an online learning management system, such as Blackboard, Moodle or D2L. These provide a weekly structure for ‘lessons’, organize content in the form of text or online readings, provide a forum for discussion on course topics, provide regular online activities and assignments, and could include links to short videos. Indeed, a short introductory video to a topic by the instructor is often a good idea, providing a personal link between you and your students.

I will discuss other possible online learning environments in later posts.

Implications

  1. A talking head delivering 50 minute lectures is in general not a good way to teach online learners.
  2. It is better in the long run to sit down with an instructional designer and build a course from scratch that is appropriate for an online learning environment, rather than try to force your classroom teaching online.
  3. Video is a good medium to use for online learning, but only if it exploits its unique pedagogical benefits.
  4. Talking heads are therefore useful only in particular contexts, and not as a way to deliver a whole course or program online.
  5. Developing quality video for online learning requires a professional approach involving lecturer, instructional designer and a multimedia or video producer.

Follow up

For a critique of the limitations of classroom lectures based on research by Donald Bligh, see Chapter 3.3 Transmissive lectures: learning by listening in Teaching in a Digital Age.

For a good summary of best design principles for developing video/multimedia for learning, based on research on the learning effectiveness of video, see the University of British Columbia’s Design Principles for Multimedia.

For a discussion of the pedagogical potential of video, see Chapter 7.4.2, Presentational features in Teaching in a Digital Age

If you want to follow up on the research and theory on which this post is based see:

  • Bligh, D. (2000) What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia Learning (2nd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • McKeachie, W. and Svinicki, M. (2006) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin

Up next

Won’t online learning be more work?

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