• August 31, 2015

College 2.0: More Professors Could Share Lectures Online. But Should They?

There are good reasons to press the 'record' button, but uploading to the Internet might desecrate the classroom

More Professors Could Share Lectures Online. But Should They? 1

Lisa Billings for The Chronicle

Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor of media studies at the U. of Virginia, says that making what happens in the classroom public could undermine academic freedom.

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close More Professors Could Share Lectures Online. But Should They? 1

Lisa Billings for The Chronicle

Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor of media studies at the U. of Virginia, says that making what happens in the classroom public could undermine academic freedom.

"Camera shy" is not the first phrase that comes to my mind for Siva Vaidhyanathan. The University of Virginia faculty member commands healthy fees for his lively presentations on media studies and law at conferences, and he has even appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. But he's not sure if he should record his lectures—or if he does, whether he should share them freely online.

An associate professor who focuses on digital media, Mr. Vaidhyanathan regularly teaches and writes enthusiastically about movements to make music, movies, and other creative works free online. I thought he'd be one of the first people to advocate open access to lectures.

But no. "I find myself playing devil's advocate all the time" in class, he said. "I don't want to be on the record saying something I don't even believe" if the lectures go out on the Web. He considers the classroom a "sacred space" that may need to stay private to preserve academic freedom.

Professors across the country are now wrestling with this issue. More and more colleges have installed microphones or cameras in lecture halls and bought easy-to-use software to get lecture recordings online. The latest Campus Computing Survey, which gathers data on classroom technology nationwide, found that 28 percent of colleges have a strategic plan to provide coursecasting equipment, and 35 percent more are working on a plan now.

Those plans raise a lot of issues. Some professors are camera shy—at least when it comes to their teaching. Others say they discuss ideas with their students that are not yet ready for prime time. And some administrators are nervous about giving away too much of their educational content as the cost of college continues to rise.

So far, most lectures seem to be locked up. A vast majority of the classes recorded on college campuses are available only to registered students in those courses as a study aid, say experts who track the trend. At Purdue University, for instance, just 24 of the 92 courses now recorded are open to the public through the university's ambitious coursecasting program.

Though several colleges run such open-courseware projects, in which they make syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, and other materials free, most of those efforts are still small, and only a few of the open courses include full lecture videos.

And though hundreds of colleges have set up channels on YouTube or reserved sections of Apple's iTunes Store devoted to material from colleges, the majority of the public content on those sites consists of marketing material or sports highlights rather than course lectures.

It's worth noting that the famous aphorism "Information wants to be free" is part of a longer quote from Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog editor who is also a computer pioneer. The other part of what he said, at a conference in 1984, was "Information wants to be expensive because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life."

The next few years could be crucial for determining how this balance tips for lecture videos, which can be produced for next to nothing but remain highly valuable in the eyes of professors and administrators.

Barriers and Fears

Mark A. Thoma, an associate professor of economics at the University of Oregon, was one of the first professors to make his every lecture free to the world. He started all of four years ago.

Like many professors I've talked to who have tried doing that, he says he's gained more viewers and attention than he ever imagined. Fans of his econometrics lectures are so loyal that some even sent him money to buy a new camera to improve the image quality.

Mr. Thoma said he hasn't felt inhibited in his lectures by the flashing red camera light, though at first he thought he might. But he knows colleagues who say they're not willing to join him.

"People are way more self-conscious about their teaching than you would think," he told me. "They're afraid people are going to grab some little clip and make fun of you."

Because so many students carry cellphone cameras that can shoot video, though, any professor could already become a laughing stock on YouTube. At least with his lecture recordings, Mr. Thoma has the ability to edit out any potentially embarrassing spots before he uploads.

For him the biggest obstacle has been finding the time to manage the recording process. He still does it the old-fashioned way—he hires a student to operate a camera during class, and he uploads the video footage to his personal YouTube account.

Mr. Vaidhyanathan struggles with the hassle factor. (He says he does hope to find a way to record and make available at least parts of his lectures, in part because he finds other professors' videos so useful.) The University of Virginia has a system set up in some classrooms that is designed to make recording a class as easy as clicking a few icons. But on a recent afternoon when he tried it, the system prompted him for a password and then didn't accept his. In the past, he said, he was able to log in and record his lecture, but then he had no idea how to find the file or post it online for his students.

John Alexander, a manager of instructional technology at the university, said that officials are working on bringing in a new system that will work better and be easier to use than what the institution has now. Other colleges are improving their technology as well, and the process seems to be getting easier on many campuses.

And while many professors feared that students would skip class if they could watch it in reruns, many professors I've talked to said they were easily able to short-circuit that practice by offering quizzes in class or taking attendance and making showing up part of the grade.

Copyright can be trickier. The law allows an exception for classroom use of clips of creative materials, but that doesn't extend to the public Web. So a professor can show a slide with a table from a textbook in physical class settings, but showing that same slide on an open Web site as part of a lecture video can potentially lead to legal trouble. Early this year, the University of California at Los Angeles temporarily forced professors to stop posting copyrighted videos to course Web sites after a trade group complained that the professors were violating copyright law by doing so. Last week the university decided to resume the practice, though, after its lawyers reviewed the issue.

For some guidance, professors can check out the "Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for OpenCourseWare," offered (free, naturally) by American University's Center for Social Media. Compliance can be difficult though, which is why open-courseware efforts end up spending time and money on securing permissions.

What If?

So what if all the professors now recording lectures for their students opened the videos to the world?

Not the discussion portion of class—let's skirt the issue of student privacy by excluding that. Imagine that all of those lectures, in which the camera is pointed squarely at a professor, were suddenly freely available.

Crazier things have happened: Google is digitizing the full text of millions of books in major university libraries as you read this (though the company faces court challenges over whether it is violating copyright in the process). What if, alongside a library of all the world's books, there was a library of tens of thousands of lecture videos?

Some scholars' ideas would be stolen. Some professors would face mockery. Some students would try the equivalent of home schooling at the college level, saving money by skipping the campus and watching at home instead.

Ideas would flow, though. Some students would get an earlier and better sense of what they want to major in by virtually sitting in on courses they may never have been exposed to before. Some professors would watch each other and improve their techniques by seeing what works for others.

And lectures might just fall out of popular use in physical classrooms, because professors could just point to their past recordings or those of others and assign viewings for homework. To keep students interested in the classroom, some professors would focus more on discussion or group projects and things that can't be easily captured on video.

Such radical openness is unlikely, and maybe not even desirable. After all, it will probably remain up to each professor to decide whether or not to press the record button. And it might work for some disciplines better than others. (Medical and highly technical ones have been the quickest to adopt the practice so far, I'm told.)

Mr. Vaidhyanathan's lectures are certainly worth catching. The day I visited his class, he gave the 200 students a clear outline of the differences between analog and digital media, and explained why using ones and zeros changes everything. He showed a couple of YouTube videos, flashed some homemade diagrams, and got a couple of students to express their thoughts, all the while pacing the floor at the front of the classroom, gesturing to emphasize his points.

It's not the kind of presentation he would do at a conference. It's more detailed and less crowd-pleasing.

But if you're a student or professor of media studies, it'd be worth a download—if he ever decides to put it online.

College 2.0 covers how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to jeff.young@chronicle.com.


1. scar4791 - March 07, 2010 at 10:23 am

The experience of sharing lecture videos on line has been an overwhelmingly positive one for the MIT community.

We've found at MIT OpenCourseWare (http://ocw.mit.edu) that significant numbers of faculty are comfortable with sharing their own lectures online, with about half indicating they would consider recording their classes. Three quarters indicate that they are comfortable with the Institute sharing videos of lectures in general. Participation in videotaping (and all OCW publication) at MIT is entirely voluntary.

There's been no indication that such recordings decrease attendance (OCW has 33 courses with full video lectures), and they are viewed by millions of educators and learners worldwide. Last year alone, the OCW site recorded more than 10 million views of our videos, and we recieve e-mail feedback on a daily basis expressig appreciation for our having made the videos available.

Intellectual property, student privacy and the logistics of recording, editing and posting the materials are all certianly issues that have to be addressed, but for MIT and many of the other schools providing video lectures through the OCW Consortium (http://ocwconsortium.org), these are a regular and managable part of the work.

Stephen Carson
External Relations Director, MIT OpenCourseWare

2. texasguy - March 08, 2010 at 10:59 am

I would make here a very strong distinction between written materials and spoken utterances. I post my PowerPoint on the web rather than going through Blackboard because I want my teaching materials available to all. I do not want to have my lectures recorded for the same reason I would not let anyone record our dining table conversations, thus destroying their ephemeral nature and their spontaneity.

3. dvakil - March 08, 2010 at 11:31 am

I'm an astronomy professor at a community college in Los Angeles. I've been recording the audio of my classes for over 2 years now superimposed on my PowerPoint lectures into a video, available free online from my web page. Just this semester, I started recording the video from my laptop's web camera as a picture-in-picture. It's cheap, it's easy, and between 10-20% of my students view my lectures online after attending class.

Having the lecture available after class is not much different than allowing tape recorders in class. Students will use the videos to review material, to hear (and see) material they struggled with during class, and it's particularly beneficial for students with limited spoken english comprehension, which is a real issue in my area. There's also a benefit for students who miss class, which is unavoidable at times when life interferes with education (common for community college students who still live at home). As the article suggests, missing class on purpose and watching the videos instead is not common because of some policies I put in place. The feared disincentive to attend class is easily overcome.

Bottom line: Students are performing better since I started making and emphasizing the availability of these videos. That's what this job is all about.

David Vakil
El Camino College

4. sivavaid - March 08, 2010 at 11:32 am

My point was that there is no one-size-fits all answer to this challenge.

Coursecasting is improper for many classes, many professors, and many subjects.

However, it works wonderfully for lecture courses about technical and scientific matters. But for whom does it work?

Coursecasting is somewhat valuable to those of us who use others' courses to learn more and prepare our own courses.

Overall, however, my experience demonstrates that it's of little benefit to my students and of little benefit to others beyond my own university. It would only be good for my own reputation and ego and -- perhaps -- the reputation of my university.

One issue I think we all must address is the expense of this practice to both the faculty member (time, training, often purchasing equipment) and the institution (same costs). Who benefits and how from this significant investment at a time of austerity?

5. flowney - March 08, 2010 at 11:33 am

If you factor in iTunes U with some 200,000 video and audio files available today, the ratio of what is currently being shared and retained may be much greater than estimated here. An insightful piece. Thanks.

Frank Lowney
Georgia College & State University

6. openstudy - March 08, 2010 at 03:50 pm


Nice piece. Interestingly enough, professors do not have the only occupation debating this scenario. Venture capitalist, Fred Wilson has a similar dilemma; he writes about it in one of his more recent posts here: http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2010/03/candid-camera.html

It reminds me of the days when I was in school and students would record the audio of the professor to make sure they didn't miss any key points. These are interesting time in academic history and the classroom walls are becoming more transparent.

- Oliver Lancaster

7. 11272784 - March 09, 2010 at 12:15 pm

This is clearly where we are going. The good news is that recorded lectures are very helpful to students who want to review the material, and they will surely help improve retention. The bad news is that too many institutions assume that the recordings equal online courses, which they are NOT. A proper online course needs a lot more than recorded lectures....among the additional features needed is a robust and meaningful online discussion, which requires time online that some faculty members are reluctant to invest.

8. cheribergeron - March 09, 2010 at 05:23 pm

It's a fascinating debate, and I think one that may have a middle ground. As a marketer, I tend to believe that when something is given for free, it tends to cheapen the perceived value. That being said, I think posting subsets of a lecture may have real merit, both to highlight the value of a professor who is particularly skilled and passionate about their subject and also to provide visibility for the university.

Have colleges considered that they could post a sample of the lecture and potentially charge students to listen to the full thing (and download a set of notes or something like that)? What an opportunity to open up a whole new market and a profitable new revenue stream!

In my opinion, the smartest colleges will put their fears aside and embrace these new online channels -- for the benefit of students and themselves. The company I work for (MyEdu) is doing something similar by providing students with access to a wealth of academic information so they can make better decisions.

Siva, my advice would be to try venturing out and see how it goes.

Austin, TX

9. henry39873 - March 09, 2010 at 05:58 pm

Interesting article.
MIT's online courses speak volumes to the validity and pertinence of free online courses.
Course finder sites like Einztein.com also are defining new ways to find online courses.

10. performance_expert - March 10, 2010 at 04:30 am

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11. performance_expert - March 10, 2010 at 04:35 am

And then there is that other horrid monopoly, the "Blackboard" mess... (or whatever it is called). Thoroughly unpleasant to use and then some professors decide to activate the "features." Don't forget to have the newest Java installed just to get the thing to work. At least students pay full price and never see the professor. Did I say pay? Is assuming debt a payment? Pay double long term. Pay the bank, quite a nice mechanism they have, installing corporate rent into US higher education.

Reminder: computers are machines that do things and nothing more.

12. performance_expert - March 10, 2010 at 04:39 am

Yes, "Blackboard" they keep changing the name, like Blackwater changed their name to XE or somesuch. Overview: instrusion of corporate culture into education. Universities are objects of profit for software companies, central banks, and textbook publishers. ($85. for what???). Target! Exploit! Exploit!

13. kboutte - March 10, 2010 at 10:25 am

I find the recorded media revolutionary and essential. All the worlds knowledge will soon be digitized and free and I would like to be a part of it. Carrollslab.blogspot.com offers my students demonstrated biochemistry lab videos that help many students (on and off campus) understand procedures and results. I create my lectures outside the classroom discussion addressing salient points for their study...and of course free. A little extra work but I love it. As educators we shouldn't fear our failures. We of all people should be receptive to learning from our mistakes and improving. This is what we teach our students, right?

14. rossemmett - March 10, 2010 at 11:07 am

I experimented with recording short mini-lectures as part of my course on the comparative political economy of innovation this past fall. We videorecorded in the Michigan State podcast studio (with the class present), and the university owns rights to the videos, for which we used a creative commons license. I'm releasing the videos publically this spring through my website, www.rossbemmett.com. The students responded well to the lectures. We also recorded the post-lecture discussion, but will not be posting those videos.

For the podcast studio, my lectures were the first ones they had recorded in front of a live audience. Usually a professor records a lecture, which is then put online for student use.

Most of my classes are discussion, rather than lecture, based, and would not be particularly useful on video. But short mini-lectures that can spark comments and discussion can broaden the professor's reach, and possibly also serve as a promotion of the university.

15. tonycontento - March 10, 2010 at 11:55 am

I would fully support this trend, but with one caveat: Academic Institutions should not be allowed to re-use lectures in subsequent semesters without the permission of the lecturer.

At some institutions, the video/audio is only available as a streaming download, and is automatically deleted after one or two semesters. This allows an instructor to go back and utilize previous lectures, but prevents the university from continuing to offer the class without further input from the instructor.

16. sivavaid - March 10, 2010 at 02:33 pm

I have recorded many of my lectures over the years. And you can find dozens of my public lectures all over the Web, including YouTube.

My reticence is not about "fear." It's about practicalities. Systems that deliver quality sound and images are expensive. I don't have the time or patience to devote the extra hours it takes to do it well.

And the rewards for doing this would be entirely personal. Teaching is not about publicity. The classroom is not a public space. And teaching is not about delivering information.

Someone has to show me that 1) posting lectures benefits my students in a measurable way and 2) producing quality videos would be cheap and easy for my university to do.

No one has ever demonstrated either of those things.

17. hestamm - March 10, 2010 at 03:26 pm

Only one of the comments so far has touched on an important issue: Compensation for re-use. I develop content for teaching. It's mine; it does not belong to the university for whom I teach courses. I don't use university equipment to generate this content. I expect to be compensated for every instance of "broadcast" of my course content. Normally, this compensation comes in the form of the the university paying me to deliver content to students enrolled in my classes. If recorded, and then made freeely available on the Internet (or heaven forbid, re-broadcast & not hiring me to teach), then I'm not receiving a fair return for my intellectual endeavors. In my mind, if the university would like to record my courses, then we should negotiate a payments that would include one-time lump sums plus royalties based on the number of broadcasts (downloads).

18. panacea - March 10, 2010 at 04:32 pm

Mr. Vaidhyanathan: in regards to your concerns about measurable benefits . . .

I went to podcasting my lectures three years ago. I voice over my Power Points, and upload them to iTunes U. Some of my presentations include short video clips to illustrate key points.

My students love them. I provide them in two formats: a video (MPEG4) format, and audio (mp3) format suitable for burning to CDs or mp3 players. Many of my students will burn my lectures to CD and listen to them in the car.

I've used Camtasia 4 on a PC in the past. Currently, I use a MacBook Pro using iMovie and Keynote. I keep the podcasts to about 20 minutes on average.

Since putting my lectures online, I have seen a great improvement in student grades. Though I realize this is anecdotal, I have noticed that class averages on my exams have risen. Since I teach in a limited enrollment program (nursing) this is important; student success is key to retention.

I would submit that a qualitative study on the benefit of podcasts and/or full video lectures would settle the question of educational value.

19. fergbutt - March 10, 2010 at 08:22 pm

The days when the classroom was a "sacred place" are long gone. It's not that hard to record a lecture on a cellphone and anonymously upload to the world. Dr. Vaidhyanathan's comments are an open invitation to his more playful students to catch him playing devil's advocate on video or maybe just audio.

20. raza_khan - March 10, 2010 at 08:48 pm

I am not sure as to why academic professionals are now losing the bigger picture. We went from a teaching-centric y to that of a learning one. We also have moved from a lecture format to a discussion one - to engage students. Now, my lecture in a chemistry class is "fun" as I not only covering "hard chemistry principles" but talk of interesting principles and then engage students and have a time for question - answer session. That is a WHOLE lecture.

Now, what is being proposed is that we move from that and put that on the web by recording the lecture.

What NO ONE is talking of is the legality of such recording. As far as I know, Texas and New Jersey are the only two states that have one party consent i.e. if I want to record a lecture in Maryland, I need to have not just an oral but a written consent of all the parties in that audiotaped and it should be spelled out in each recording. Remember Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. This law is fall out from that loophole.

Now, to comply with law, what I have to do is to remove all that engagement feature and simply post my words ("lecture") on the web. What is the point of that???

If a faculty member finds out that his or her students did not write down the required notes and NEEDS to go online to listen to the audio to get it, it is high time for that faculty member to probably reflect on his delivery method. Re-writing notes typically implies looking over your notes and then open the textbook and see if it flows. Other than that, what is being promoted is that a student attending a class needs to go to another section to listen to the lecture again.

21. raza_khan - March 10, 2010 at 08:50 pm

In my last comment, I meant to say that Texas and Maryland are the only states that one party recording consent and all others have ALL party consent that is every one must verbally authorize recording on the tape.

22. kerr7920 - March 10, 2010 at 09:14 pm

This seems like a reasonable approach to that minority of faculty who are truly gifted lecturers, or who are already speaking to a room so filled with students that class time is more about performance than communication and interaction. But many (myself included) are competent but not dynamic lecturers. The key to classroom learning in my case involves constant interaction, socratic questions, drawing students into examples and scenarios, and staying constantly attuned to the classroom mood. Am I stating the obvious? Time to delve a little deeper. Am I confusing them? Back up and take a different tack. Are the ideas exciting and provocative enough that students want to jump in? Then, for God's sake, time for me to shut up and let students vocalize. I respect and admire brilliant lecturers, and believe that a good lecture can be an excellent learning tool. But my recorded lectures would be a disservice to my students.

23. johnrakin - March 11, 2010 at 06:08 am

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24. anon1972 - March 11, 2010 at 09:22 am

What Raza Khan said. I don't lecture because it's not an effective way to teach in my field (literature). I deliver necessary information by way of a blog and reserve class time for discussion, whose direction is determined largely by the students' interests (since the possibilities for what we COULD talk about in any given work are almost infinite). For most of the humanities, online lectures would do nothing to promote learning and everything to lull students back into the passive, "spoon-fed" mode we've worked so hard to get them out of....

25. archman - March 11, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Interesting responses here. My own personal experience (as a student), as well as that of the majority of graduate students and undergraduates I've discussed this with, HATE recorded lectures. One consistency between us was a lack of interest in downloading and viewing the lectures on our own time. We also stopped attending class (since the lectures were available online).

Perhaps our lecturers just weren't entertaining enough? Or, like the article stated at some point, lack of "seat-warming incentives" (attendance grades, pop quizzes) precluded actual attendance? Ha ha.

26. trterry - March 12, 2010 at 07:55 pm

Until this came along how many Department Heads and Deans ever actually saw their faculty in action?

When an article is published it is subject to peer and public judgement. Why should ones teaching be any different?

T R Terry Jr.

27. 11264553 - March 14, 2010 at 08:24 pm

Won't do it. Lectures contain the results of my research (self-funded, much of it). Intellectual property issues if posted for anybody to read. Come to class!

28. arrive2__net - March 14, 2010 at 09:52 pm

I have these observation on this thought-provoking and valuable article: The option to view a missed lecture online makes face-to-face classes more competitive with asynchronous online / distance courses, at least in terms of the flexibility and convenience factors. I think the recording of a professor's lectures should be voluntary, unless the recording is a term of employment. As others have suggested, for any given professor there may be people who would use whatever they can get against you, and with your lectures online there would be a lot of possible fodder for such people. If you have to satisfy people whose expectations are based on televised lectures with high production values (like Harvard Justice, on PBS) you may be setting yourself up for criticism that you may not be able to resolve. Lectures in many fields, like Pyschology, are only good for so long because the field, texts, research, etc. moves on and renders old lectures obsolete.
Bernard Schuster

29. quebecprof - March 19, 2010 at 12:21 pm

It is so refreshing to see such a thoughtful debate on this subject. It often seems to be reduced to a simplistic and essentialized comment such as "more access to free education is good". Our classes are fully interactive and deal with tremendously sensitive information (we are a social services department). I do agree that the handful of talented performers who have become teachers and have the resources (skills and tools) to create engaging monologues on line should do so as they wish. I also agree that the classroom is a privileged place where students are afforded the ability to create an environment to safety test out ideas and techniques. Having a camera effects the climate in the room. This goes beyond the obvious legal and privacy issues already mentioned. In an age of "reality entertainment", our students have an entirely different relationship with cameras and broadcasting than many only a few years older than them. Media has few or no boundaries for those raised entirely in the youtube/ big brother tidal wave. I respect my colleagues who choose to engage in this practice, and believe that in the right context it can be great. In the context of my class, no recording of any kind is permitted. Perhaps I might try recording the small lecture components alone... isn't this what documentaries are for?

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