Will Video Technology Kill the Classroom Lecture?

by Dr. Luanne Fose - The Tweed Geek on September 29, 2010

screenshot of david miller animal behavior video

Professor David B. Miller's PSYC 3201 Video (Screenshot)

The August 8, 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled Mass Video Courses May Free Up Professors for More Personalized Teaching discusses New York University’s ambitious experiment of developing interactive videos to replace classroom lecture time.

Note that I used the word “interactive” here. These interactive videos are not the typical “talking head” variety that some universities have chosen to automatically broadcast with lecture capture tools. According to NYU spokespersons, these videos are “souped-up” and include live links to resources the instructors discuss as well as pop-up definitions and interactive quizzes to accompany the video material.

What is the motivation behind all of this intensive video development? Dalton Conley, the Dean of Social Sciences at NYU,  states, “Rather than have to pay our research faculty to stand in front of a room and teach the same classes over and over (after all, when’s the last time Calculus I really changed?), with one fewer course to teach, they can now take on the role of faculty curators.” From such a statement we could conclude that the motivation behind this NYU pedagogical shift is to leverage newer technologies with the hope of changing the role of the instructor in large undergraduate classrooms and consequently, free up their time for more personal instruction, student mentoring, and guidance of student research.

My overall reaction to this suggested pedagogical shift was positive although I suspect that many of you may disagree and see this as one more “nail in the coffin” toward the demise of higher education. First of all, let me point out that we aren’t talking about totally online immersion here at NYU, but rather, finding a way to utilize the lecture time slot to do more interactive work with students (e.g., discussion, hands-on projects, Q&A, etc.). In many ways, NYU’s implementation of interactive videos is similar to the CTL’s efforts at Cal Poly to encourage hybrid classroom teaching (i.e., combining face-to-face classroom time with online activities to encourage more active learning strategies). However, in Cal Poly’s hybrid scenario, one or more class lectures are forfeited for instruction online, rather than as an addition to the student workload, so a course does not end up becoming a course and a half.

Before I continue with my opinion, I must state a personal caveat here: I have never been a fan of “talking head” faculty video lectures; however, if the video lecture is properly done (and I’ll give you an example later in this article of what I mean by “properly done”), then I think there is an advantage to the time that video lectures can free up for faculty, allowing them to provide more individual faculty attention to students and resulting in a higher level of student learning than the typical face-to-face lecture can provide. Furthermore, I listen to faculty (almost weekly) lament the fact that today’s students just won’t read anymore! Don’t’ get me wrong, I believe reading is important and should be an integral part of academic rigor, but what if now and then a well-conceived recorded video lecture replaced some of the reading for student viewing outside of class? Consider this possibility: With such an approach, students would be able to review sections of the content that were unclear to them as much as they desired and then later engage the instructor in class discussions and by doing so, avoid the creation of “monster” courses that normally would require students to be responsible for the class work of two courses. After all, faculty are the experts on the content they teach and if undergraduate face-to-face university education is going to come attached to a hefty price tag, shouldn’t students be given access to engage those experts long before they become graduate students? Just a thought…

The next jump I’m going to make here in my reasoning will probably ruffle many feathers: I have often thought that the prominent universities, who have faculty lecture “stars,” should record these “star faculty” lectures and provide those videos as the main lecture content for general education courses. After viewing, the students would be able to follow-up on what they had learned, meeting “in person” with these faculty in the university classroom for more in-depth probing on the topic, review of case studies, further discussion, demonstrations, and rigorous interaction. What if students were actually able to have a chance to develop a relationship with these “star instructors” and pick their brains rather than just be a speck in the sea of faces of the large lecture halls? Wouldn’t you as a instructor prefer to have an in-depth, invigorating discussion with informed students about the topic of your passion rather than droning on, chanting the same lecture (possibly in multiple sections per day) every single year of your teaching career? Well… I would prefer the invigorating discussion, but maybe that’s just me. For me, the thrill of teaching comes from the change of the players (students) each quarter, but if you’re just going to lecture “at” them without interaction, then you’re not going to experience the joy inherent in the diversity of their individual personalities, are you? Nor will you, as a teacher, benefit from the value of exchange so that you can be more aware of your students’ needs and thereby improve your teaching in the future.

I encourage you to review the list of comments appended to the bottom of the CHE article. The following comment (#19 by optimysticynic) especially resonated with the way my own thinking has been changing over the past few years:  “It is not the ‘lecture’ that is ill-conceived, but rather thinking that everyone who stands in front of a class is a ‘lecturer.’ Basic logical fallacy here. We acknowledge expertise, wisdom, and competence in our athletes, musicians, actors, etc. We acknowledge (and value) the irreplaceable value of a wise, senior pitching coach. Why are we so reluctant to do so in the academy?”

Part 2 of this CHE article, entitled Killing the Lecture with Technology (August 17, 2010), continues this controversial discussion with a video example from Dr. David B. Miller – a Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut. Professor Miller admirably created 90 videos (Wow! Even I am awed by that number!) for his Animal Behavior course with the use of three software tools on his Macintosh: Keynote (Apple’s counterpart to Microsoft PowerPoint), Screenflow (a screencasting program for the Mac similar to Adobe Captivate, Techsmith’s Camtasia, or Ambrosia’s SnapZPro), and QuickTime Pro for adding streaming capabilities.

When I said earlier in this blog entry that I would provide an example of video capture “properly done,” I was referring to Professor Miller’s video lectures. Granted, the beginning of this video, where Professor Miller explains the layout of the course and discusses the requisite housekeeping matters may not qualify for such an accolade, but I encourage you to jump to the end of this video and watch a few minutes of his actual lecturing (@ 21:30 – end). From reviewing this portion of the video, several things became clear to me: 1) Professor Miller is comfortable in lecturing without a word-for-word written-out script; 2) He has a pleasant speaking voice that doesn’t fall into the trap of monotone frequencies; 3) He provides his students with excellent visual examples (e.g., appropriate images and embedded videos); and 4) He even integrates a flavor of his own personality by incorporating small segments of “talking head” video now and then. Yes, this approach to lecture capture is time-consuming to construct, but it is so much more effective for learning a topic than the “talking head” videos we have suffered through over the past few years as instructors have experimented with various methods to deliver online instruction. This sort of example makes me feel so much more adrenalized about the future of online learning as we begin to experience academic video instruction climbing to new heights through the integration of sound pedagogy and powerful software tools. Three cheers for the professional enhanced podcast!

In summary: I particularly like the statement by Professor Michael Satlow (Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University) regarding the value (or not) of the classroom lecture: “I plan to devote class time to very little ‘frontal’ presentation and a lot of discussion… In my opinion, it is in large measure the give and take of the classroom that adds value to education and that justifies the price tag, not the faculty presentation.”

Once again, I would encourage you to read the comments of the follow-up article (Part 2) as well. The comments contained there, from academics all across the country, are often passionate in nature and include both endorsements and disagreements; they are certainly worth the time to read if you seek to understand the varied viewpoints on this heated topic. I would be curious to hear your reactions to my blog comments. Truly, what are the thoughts of Cal Poly faculty on this controversial topic? Let’s discuss…

Dr. Luanne Fose – The Tweed Geek

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