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

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.
March 07, 2010

"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.

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