Default lecture capture: In defense of academic freedom, safety and well-being

This is a submission based on the collated and collective views of the Human Geography Research Group (HGRG) in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh as our institution is considering adopting lecture capture by default. I am sharing it here as it might assist other academics who are confronting and concerned about mandatory lecture recording and it might help students to understand why default lecture recording is not necessarily in their interests.

The HGRG is strongly opposed to the policy of default recording on four main grounds:

  • Pedagogical reasons
  • Academic freedom
  • Staff well-being
  • Staff and student safety

Pedagogical reasons

We understand why stressed, anxious and highly indebted students might well believe that their interests are best served by having access to recordings of lectures, but it is our belief that for the majority of our students it will have a detrimental effect on their learning.

Many of us are dealing with difficult and often quite controversial material in class and we try to encourage a high level of student engagement and class participation.   Lecture content is therefore often quite spontaneous and responsive to student input.  An interactive lecture requires students to be actively present in the classroom. This mode of participation is not possible when viewing a recorded lecture later. Furthermore, the fact of recording changes the way in which both teachers and students behave, deterring both us and them from dealing with sensitive or controversial content. For many students it takes a lot of courage to speak up in class and they will simply not do so if they know they are being recorded. Lecturers would be forced to substantially change their lecture content and style of delivery that will make lectures less interesting, interactive and engaging – hallmarks of “innovative” learning. We believe that recording will destroy the classroom rapport, spontaneity and informality that are fundamental for effective learning and critical thinking. Even if lecture recording has no impact on attendance (which is debatable), it might also encourage students to be less than present during the class as they know that they can access the material later.

We also live in a highly saturated media environment in which in addition to books and journal articles, we have instant access to a range of media content, include YouTube clips, documentaries, movies, Ted talks, podcasts, and radio shows that might well provide useful supplementary learning material for students. In addition, most students are active and competent users of social media and are used to being exposed to media texts that that can be consumed very quickly.  While instant access to this kind of media content is valuable in many ways, it does create an economy of distraction and is making it harder for many people to listen and pay attention to something for more than a few minutes.  Attending lectures in person and being required to pay careful attention to what is being said for one or two hours without being able to pause or rewind provides students with an important set of skills, namely the ability to pay attention for more than five minutes, select information and critically prioritize what is important within an argument and take a useful set of notes. Students need to learn to listen. The ability of thinking critically can only be acquired by focusing on the unfolding of an argument, by struggling – and perhaps disagreeing – with it and this is a skill best acquired in the classroom rather than through another online media text. There is plenty of useful material online already for students who wish to listen to a course-relevant podcast while relaxing, walking to campus or doing exercise. We should not add recorded lectures to this already abundant and often overwhelming media content.

There are of course universities and courses that specialize in online delivery (ODL), where all of the students study remotely and material is only available in an online format and delivered in a unidirectional way from teacher to student. While ODL works for some students, these courses lack the participatory and creative learning environments that in-person course delivery provides.  If there are students that wish to avoid class participation or need to study remotely for other reasons, there are courses that cater for this mode of learning. The learning needs of the vast majority of students are better served by lectures and tutorials that they attend in person and are combined with reading and independent study.

Furthermore, most of our students do not read anywhere near enough. The failure to read sufficiently is amply reflected in students’ written work and is a shared concern often raised during examination boards. Reading is central to getting a university education and good writers and critical thinkers are also avid readers. The best thing our students can do outside of the classroom is to read material from class reading lists, rather than to watch online a lecture that they have already attended. A good set of notes taking during the lecture is more than sufficient for reviewing this material later when doing assessed work. Even if recording lectures does not impact on attendance, it might impact negatively on the time students dedicate to reading.

One of the issues we struggle with at times is poor class attendance, which can very quickly undermine learning outcomes. Availability of online lectures is likely to deter some students from attending class as they know they can catch up later. As teachers, we try to produce a collective dynamic in the classroom based on co-learning (we all learn from each other) and in which insights unfold over the course of the semester.  The most stimulating classes are ones in which conversations are developed, evolved and built on. The only way to do this effectively is to do so in an embodied face-to-face way, by being present in the room with others and by coming to class every week.

Academic freedom

The proposed policy states that opting out of recording will require the permission of the head of school. The members of the Human Geography Research Group are engaged in critical work in the humanities and social sciences but are based in the School of Geosciences. This school is dominated by physical scientists who often use quite different pedagogical strategies and tend not to teach the critical social theory and political perspectives that are central to our own teaching.  This school organization means that our heads of schools and directors of teaching tend to be physical scientists and sometimes do not have sufficient familiarity with approaches and pedagogical techniques in human geography and the critical social sciences. While we are confident that our existing head of school would support our requests to opt out, we cannot speak for future heads of school that might base decisions on a physical science model. It is important for our own personal safety, the protection of our academic freedom and the quality of our teaching that our need to opt out in respected in the future. It should not depend on whether the current or future head of school is sufficiently familiar with and sympathetic to our pedagogical approaches.

We recognize that for some lecturers and some courses and classes, lecture recording might be seen as a valuable pedagogical tool. The person giving the lecture is best placed to decide on the pedagogical advantages and disadvantages of recording and the decision on whether to record should be left to the class lecturer. Academic freedom is being eroded in all kinds of ways in British universities to the detriment of both teaching and research (see Karran’s 2017 report at https://www.ucu.org.uk/academic-freedom-in-2017) and this policy would exacerbate this state of affairs.

Staff well-being

There is already too much administrative work and bureaucracy at the University of Edinburgh and for many academics workloads are unsustainably high. This policy would create additional work and an unnecessary layer of administrative bureaucracy for both lecturers and heads of schools. We are not given sufficient time to prepare and deliver lectures, grade assessments and meet with students in our office hours. These things take far longer than the time allocated to them in the workload model and most human geographers are also working over capacity. So we do not have time for the additional work proposed by the policy, not only seeking permission to opt out from the head of school but also “reviewing and editing the recording, where required, and publishing it to the students on the Course(s) via the service, normally by the end of the next working day.” The policy assumes our time is elastic, but it is not.

Furthermore, with the change to an opt-out policy, the onus will be on us as individuals to explain and justify our decision to opt-out to our students – with the default being that recording is a “good thing” against which we will need to articulate an argument. We think that this could place an undue degree of stress on us as staff and detract from the learning aims of the course.

There is also concern that the recording of lectures could easily be used for a range of non-pedagogical purposes, including for evaluation by managers. Furthermore, mandatory recording would place intolerable pressure on academics. New hires or those developing new courses often have to prepare a large number of new lectures from scratch in a very short space of time. If staff were being recorded for all of them, they might well feel more pressure to prepare these lectures perfectly and this may mean they end up reading from scripts to remain in control of what they say and avoid any momentary lapses of concentration, fluffing of ‘lines’ etc. They will find that time for research and other non-teaching activities is even further reduced.

Staff and student safety

As noted above, as experts in our fields, we are the best placed to know whether recording is appropriate or useful. The decision on whether to record should therefore be in the hands of academics.  We believe that students should be exposed to difficult and complex material that might critique and challenge the cultural or political status quo. Students in human geography need to engage with a range of feminist, queer, anti-colonial, decolonial, anarchist, and socialist ideas that are central to our discipline and facilitate understanding the world through a geographical lens. We are doing them a disservice if we do not give them the analytical and theoretical tools to interrogate the uneven and unequal world in which we live. In addition to do so requires engagement with many of the complex issues of our time, including war and conflict, forced migrations, violence against women, racism, social injustice and socio-economic inequality.

We are however living in dangerous times in which white supremacy, colonial apologetics, sexism, racism, Islamaphobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment are resurgent and are promoted by the present political conjuncture, characterized by the Trump presidency, the politics of Brexit, austerity and the use of Prevent legislation in universities as well as other factors. Online trolling and abuse by sexist, racist, and neocolonial actors is often directed towards academics. To date, universities have done very little to protect academics from this kind of abuse and as a result many are suffering and living in fear. See for example:

“I’m a Stanford professor accused of being a terrorist. McCarthyism is back”

https://amp.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/08/stanford-professor-mccarthyism-antifa

“Death threats are forcing professors off campus”

http://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/21/us/university-professors-free-speech-online-hate-threats/index.html

See also the numerous articles detailing the attacks and abuse directed at Farhana Sultana, Syracuse University, and Lola Olufemi, University of Cambridge, two examples here

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/10/09/pro-colonialism-article-has-been-withdrawn-over-threats-journal-editor

http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/41763158/trolled-for-asking-for-more-writers-of-colour-at-cambridge

Online lectures make it possible for small pieces of lecture material to be placed on the internet and shared on social media and potentially expose us and our students to all kinds of emotional and physical harm.  Streamed lectures can easily be recorded, edited into memes and other forms of social media content, and used for various non-pedagogical purposes. While the proposed policy states that students who share material would be subject to disciplinary action, there would be no way to identify who was responsible for its dissemination.

Our classrooms need to be safe spaces for our students and for us and our colleagues, particularly those who are BAME or who teach through a decolonial or feminist lens. We want our students to be able to ask questions, say what they think, and participate in class discussion and we want to be able to respond to them without fear that our words and interventions will appear on the internet without our consent.

Many of us draw on our research experiences in our teaching and some of us do research in countries with high levels of political repression and authoritarianism, often directed at political opponents of the government, feminist activists or LGTB people. If we criticize the government in power, as we often do in our classes to provide context or illustrate theoretical points, this could also expose us to danger when we do fieldwork, should this material be shared.

We know from historical and contemporary experience that the lives of academics can be put in grave danger because somebody doesn’t like their politics.

This policy must therefore be strongly opposed in the interests of sound pedagogies, academic freedom and the well-being and safety of both staff and students.

 

 

 

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3 responses to “Default lecture capture: In defense of academic freedom, safety and well-being

  1. “There is also concern that the recording of lectures could easily be used for a range of non-pedagogical purposes, including for evaluation by managers.”. I’d say that’s a pretty sound pedagogical purpose!

  2. Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Some interesting comments on lecture capture, from the human geographers at University of Edinburgh

  3. Been recorded for eight or nine years at University of Melbourne – everybody has there, and in many if not the majority of big western universities. What happens is we control our own Blackboard sites and if you are bothered by one, you can delete a recording. A few lecturers refuse to be be recorded at all and opt out – one or two that Fraser will remember!

    No lecturers have the time to close-edit a recording to my knowledge. It is either left up on the site or deleted. Viewing stats suggest not many students listen to the recordings – more in the UK and they do so before exam period. This is useful for them.

    It usually takes about 5 minutes to set up the recordings on the class page at beginning of semester – no time involved. These days it is done automatically. Never any problems with utterances being used against staff or students, as has happened in the US. Real debate happens in tutes, which are not recorded.

    Here in the UK where I work now, our Moodle lecturing interface is also problem-free and I have not heard any complaints. I have heard complaints about lecturers being asked to mark student work submitted only online – there is resistance to that, but people who travel a lot like me prefer the online marking systems and there is more chance that their typing is intelligible over handwriting. But the two are going to run in parallel.

    In sum, I would say with many years of experience, no dramas.

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