What’s up with lecture capture and “flipped” classrooms?

This semester, when I walked into one of my classrooms, I found myself greeted by big signs reminding me to turn on the microphone and be sure I was within the range of the camera. A sign next to the whiteboard explained the classroom technology could record my lectures and upload them automatically to Blackboard, the university’s course management system.

The university is making a few assumptions:

  1. I lecture.
  2. I use Blackboard.

Both are incorrect.  And therein lies a cautionary tale not just for the university and for instructors, but also for students.  Students and parents should know in advance what kind of technology is used in the classroom and the repercussions of that technology.

How lecture capture works

Universities originally promoted these “lecture capture” technologies so that students who missed class or had difficulty with the information presented could watch the video on their own time outside of class.  Recently, though, many universities have been encouraging their faculty to “flip” the classroom by recording their lectures in advance, uploading them into the course management system, and requiring students to watch the videos for homework.

Students then come to class to do “homework”—problem sets in a math class, for example—or activities, with the help of the instructor and perhaps teaching assistants.

Depending on the size of the class, students’ ability to learn from recorded lectures, the student-instructor ratio, the instructor’s savvy with such exercises, and students’ willingness to interact with one another, such in-class activity can be highly beneficial for student learning and can go a long way toward engaging students with the subject and with each other.

Potential pitfalls

A university’s use of lecture capture, however, can also reveal a lot about its structure, its teaching and learning philosophies, its attitudes about students, and its resources.

Lecture is a questionable teaching strategy. Research indicates students fail to retain the vast majority of information shared in a lecture—even if asked about it fifteen minutes after the lecture has ended. If an instructor lectures regularly, it’s also often a sign that he expects students to learn content rather than demonstrate skills.  Are instructors asking students to take quizzes and exams or write research papers, author lab reports, and undertake creative projects?  Instructors who lecture typically assess students via quizzes and exams rather than work that requires sustained critical or creative thinking.  And, of course, employers favor graduates who can communicate–skills that are more likely to be developed through interacting rather than taking exams.

Universities like lecture capture because its content is eminently recyclable and therefore scaleable. Once I record the lectures in the classroom, they’re on a university-controlled server, and the university may claim copyright for them. That means the university could package them up into a course and hand them off to just anyone to teach–but most likely an underpaid adjunct–or do away with instructors altogether and offer it as a MOOC, all without my permission.  It’s not an ethical way to treat employees or students.  (University administrators seem to think flipping the classroom will save them money, though Case Western Reserve University CIO Lev Gonick points out that flipping the classroom actually takes a village of employees.)

I also worry that watching video of lectures will cut into the time students should be reading (a concern shared by history professor Jonathan Rees).  I believe students need to get more points of view than just the instructor’s, and they certainly shouldn’t be replacing reading original sources with an instructor’s video-recorded lecture summarizing the authors’ ideas.  My own class sessions comprise discussion and activities on assigned reading (or occasionally high-quality viewing) rather than lecture and objective tests.

Know yourself as a learner

As you might have caught on by now, I think a university’s use of lecture capture to flip the classroom can be a red flag.  But it’s up to you; if you’re the kind of student who can learn from video lectures and who doesn’t need to be able to ask for clarification during a lesson, then you might be fine with a few classes flipped in this manner.

Personally, the thought of spending 16-20 hours watching professors lecture via video as my homework each week makes me a little ill.  (So does listening to that many hours of lecture in the classroom.)  I have far better ways to use my time, and I agree with those who have declared “These flipped classrooms are the educational equivalent of scanning your own groceries at the supermarket.”