Lecture capture: a second chance?
Emily Nordmann on how her thinking and research on this has progressed.
12 September 2023
What is the most efficient way for students to use lecture recordings made by lecture capture systems? Recent years – including the pandemic – have impacted the research on this, but also the wider perception, implementation, and policies. Here, I outline how my perspective has changed, and why lectures and their recordings remain a valuable aspect of higher education.
Lecture capture refers to the recording of a live lecture. This lecture is likely to be face-to-face, although it also applies to live online lectures. The recording will have audio, but may also include slides and/or a video of the lecturer. It may be automatic, requiring no action on behalf of the lecturer and occurring according to a schedule.
This contrasts with instructional videos and recorded lectures that have been designed for asynchronous engagement; they typically have higher production values and are intended for reuse in subsequent years. Some of what I will discuss applies to both types of educational video, but a key difference between the two is that lecture capture is normally intended as a supplementary resource. The (often implicit) understanding is that these recordings are a ‘Plan B’ rather than a viable alternative to attendance.
Indeed, my first approach to studying lecture capture was to investigate this concern that the recording will replace attendance at the live event. The literature on the impact of providing recordings and attendance and recording use is wildly inconsistent; some studies have found a relationship between recording use and reduced attendance (e.g. Edwards & Clinton, 2019), some have found that providing recordings increased attendance (e.g.,Aldaman et al., 2015), but most have found no evidence of a relationship (e.g.,McGowan & Hanna, 2015). I now argue that this approach to investigating the relationship between attendance and lecture capture is at best uninformative and at worst problematic.
Despite this, it was the results of this first study that provided a foundation for my thinking and research in this area. Our cross-sectional study of an undergraduate psychology program at all four levels (Nordmann et al., 2019) showed no correlation between the amount of lecture recordings viewed and lecture attendance, and no evidence that lecture capture decreased attendance. While there was a difference in attendance between recorded and non-recorded lectures in the first year, there were also differences between two recorded lecture streams in the second year, emphasising the fact that there are numerous factors affecting attendance other than recording availability.
Instead, the most interesting results emerged when we analysed the data by level of study and academic ability. For first-year students, those with English as a second language (ESL) used recordings more than first-language speakers, but this difference was not present for students in higher levels. The debate about lecture capture so often focuses on misuses of recordings that this was a really positive finding: in the first semester of first year, when language difficulties and transitional issues are at their height, our ESL students were making use of the resources provided to them when it mattered most.
Additionally, for first-year students, both attendance and recording use were positive predictors of exam grade: the more lectures they went to and the more recordings they watched, the better they did. However, there was an interaction with GPA that made this more complex. For average or high GPA students with low attendance, watching more of the recordings was predictive of better grades in the exam; it appeared that these students were capable of studying independently and catching up on the live sessions they’d missed. Conversely, for students whose GPA was in the lower quantile, recording use was not predictive of achievement for those with low attendance. Instead, supplemental use (i.e. higher lecture attendance and recording use) was predictive of their final exam grade.
The impact of supplemental use of lecture capture is reflected elsewhere in the literature. For example, Gardner (2022) found that psychology students who viewed recorded research methods lectures did better in the exam even after controlling for attendance. However, our GPA analyses highlight a complexity to the impact of lecture capture that involves multiple factors beyond simply how many lectures a student attends and/or watches.
Lecture capture as a generic study skill
This finding made me realise I was thinking about lecture capture in the wrong way. The discussion surrounding recordings often comes with the implicit assumption that the impact of lecture capture and how students use it is relatively uniform, and that we can make generalisable statements about the relationship between attendance, recording use, and achievement. I now saw how limited this position is.
Phase two of my approach, then, was driven by this idea that different students will use and be impacted by lecture capture differently. We don’t find it particularly controversial that some students may take better notes or learn more from the reading than other students, and our concern about these differences does not manifest in calls to stop students taking notes or reading. Rather, we provide guidance to improve the effectiveness of their study behaviours. Why then, is it so controversial that the use and impact of lecture capture might not be ‘one-size fits all’? Why are cases where it’s not used effectively employed as a rationale to ban it all?
I became interested in how using lecture recordings relates to general study skills, because it’s not possible to discuss whether students are using recordings effectively without accounting for how they take notes or whether they keep up with their work throughout term. You can do those other things without lecture recordings, but by and large you can’t use lecture recordings without their efficacy being influenced by another skill, many of which fall under the banner of self-regulated learning (SRL, e.g. Zimmerman, 2000).
There are several different models of SRL but the general idea is that people learn best when they take control of their own learning, when learners plan and set goals, when they use effective strategies, and when they reflect on their performance and make changes to their approach based on this reflection. Self-regulation is predictive of success in all learning environments, but it’s an even stronger predictor of success for online and independent learning. As we’re all now painfully aware following the pivot to online, lecture capture is a very different beast to online learning… but there are some similarities in the factors related to how effectively students use it.
With that in mind, we published a review paper of practical recommendations for students and instructors that synthesises evidence from educational and cognitive psychology about effective study strategies to help students maximise their use of lecture capture (Nordmann et al., 2020). We took a holistic approach that included guidance on how to take good notes; how to use recordings for revision versus watching the lecture for the first time; the importance of distributed learning rather than ‘binging the boxset’; and yes, attendance, but framed in terms of effective study strategies rather than as a binary choice between good and evil.
Lessons from Covid
Shifting to a holistic view of lecture capture made me re-evaluate other aspects of the debate on the link between attendance and recording use. At its core, lecture capture represents a second chance, and that’s a good thing.
We know that online distance learning (ODL) programmes like those offered for many years by the Open University have a different demographic profile compared to traditional on-campus offerings. ODL students tend to be older and are more likely to have families, health concerns, or work or caring commitments which means that without ODL they are often excluded from participating in higher education.
When it comes to the flexibility offered by recording on-campus lectures, ESL students and those with learning disabilities hugely appreciate and are supported by the provision of recordings (e.g. Nordmann et al., 2019; Nightingale et al., 2019) and we also know from (pre-Covid) studies on staff attitudes that these two issues are often cited as ‘legitimate’ reasons to provide lecture recordings. But lecture capture can be so much more than this; the flexibility it provides can arguably narrow the gap in accessibility between traditional and ODL programmes. There can be no better proof of this than the pandemic.
The impact of Covid was, and continues to be, awful and far-reaching. Yet in all that darkness there was light: many of our most disadvantaged students reported that their university experience opened up for them when everything was online. There are of course issues around ‘digital poverty’, but for a broad and diverse group of students – including those with learning or physical disabilities, carers, neurodivergent students, commuting students, and those with mental health conditions – the accessibility and flexibility they had been denied became suddenly and widely available.
What’s surprising, particularly if you look at this with a post-Covid lens, is that there was relatively little work done on how traditional lecture capture impacts the on-campus experience of this broader group of disadvantaged students. In 2018 we received funding from the Quality Assurance Agency in Scotland to use focus groups to look at how lecture capture can be used to support widening participation students (MacKay et al., 2021). The socially progressive case for lecture capture was plain to see.
For these students, lecture capture allowed them to earn money by giving them the flexibility to take on paid employment; it was a safety net for when chronic health issues of their own or those they were caring for meant they couldn’t come to class; it allowed them to manage the cost of commuting. Above all else, lecture capture allowed them to balance cost and reward and to make a choice – they weren’t missing lectures through laziness, poor study strategies, or a lack of commitment, they were making a rational choice about how to best balance the many competing parts of their lives in a way that made higher education sustainable for them.
The return to campus
The difficulty with the lecture capture debate has always been that even when academics recognise and support accessibility adjustments, it is politically difficult to make a positive case for students missing class.
As teaching has returned to campus, the discussion about lectures and lecture capture has further polarised, in part fuelled by photos of empty lecture theatres circulating on Twitter. One camp, to my genuine surprise, is advocating for the removal of lecture recordings. There are now numerous reports of institutions instigating punitive attendance policies and/or removing the provision of lecture recordings, in an attempt to deal with student disengagement that has nothing to do with lecture recordings and everything to do with the fact we’re still dealing from the fallout from living through a bloody pandemic.
When I see those photos of empty lecture theatres, I don’t assume that it’s a bad lecture; but I also don’t assume that the students are lazy and disengaged. The trauma of the last few years isn’t as easy to take off as a mask. We need to accept (and build into workload models) that all levels of education will be working through the impact of Covid for years to come.
I also ask if anyone has explained to the students why they should turn up. Part of the rationale for writing the recommendations of Nordmann et al. (2020) was to encourage instructors to explicitly tell students what effective use of lecture capture looks like. If that was necessary pre-Covid, it’s even more crucial now. The argument that they won’t learn from a recording simply won’t fly anymore.
The first lecture our psychology students receive at Glasgow is on study skills (see the slides), where we explain about attendance promoting structure, routine, opportunities for interaction with staff and peers, and that the recording won’t capture everything that happens in the room. We also take lecture attendance, not to punish them but to help support their engagement – I am frequently taken aback by how many people will complain about attendance but don’t monitor it. What we measure signals what we consider important, and our procedures should match our proclamations.
In contrast to calls to abandon lecture capture, there are also calls to abandon live lectures entirely and to only provide didactic content through asynchronous recordings. The rationale behind this argument is that lectures are a poor method of teaching and those empty lecture theatres are further evidence of this. Like so much of what we experienced over the pandemic, the ability to record lectures forces us to confront what the point of our teaching is and how we spend the limited time we have with our students. My experience of the pandemic and my reading of the evidence has led me very strongly to the position that on-campus institutions should return to face-to-face lecture with lecture capture.
During the first lockdown, there were a lot of discussions about whether we should deliver our lectures as asynchronous or synchronous. I am the first-year lead and my colleague Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel is the second-year lead, and we were hugely concerned about taking away the routine and contact that lectures provide for a student cohort that hadn’t chosen to learn online: flexibility is great, being left to learn on your own when that’s not what you wanted to do is less so.
Our response was watch parties (Kuepper-Tetzel & Nordmann, 2021) – lectures were timetabled as usual but rather than delivering them live we streamed pre-recorded versions chunked into two or three sections with quizzes and Q&A etc. in the breaks. Because we weren’t lecturing live, we could also engage in the chat as the lecture was happening and the feedback from students was really positive – it wasn’t perfect, but it gave them something to look forward to and a point of connection with us and their peers.
This was my most important lesson from Covid – the important questions about lectures and lecture capture are not about lectures or lecture capture. By and large, didactic knowledge transmission during that time did not suffer greatly; nobody came away thinking ‘Well I just wish the videos had been higher quality’. Instead, the lessons we learned were about belonging and community, creating connections between staff and students, isolation, peer support, identity, and study skills.
Yes, some lectures are awful – we’ve all sat through them, we’ve probably given at least one ourselves. If the argument is we should abandon poorly designed, passive lectures, or that too high a proportion of our teaching is delivered in this format, then I am in absolute agreement. But there must be an acknowledgement that lectures can be more than their lowest form and that knowledge transmission is not the only outcome of importance. Providing structure, community, and a sense of belonging is just as vital. When they are done well, lectures can represent an efficient and effective method of meeting these needs and a pragmatic solution to providing contact when workload and student numbers must be balanced.
So, in 2023, what makes a lecture worth showing up for? There’s a fantastic paper by Jerez et al. (2021) that discusses how to improve the effectiveness of large-group teaching. It gives useful advice and highlights issues with the argument that lectures are a poor pedagogical choice, emphasising that those who critique lectures appear to prioritise the critique over actually doing anything evidence-based to make lectures better or engaging.
I’ve written about this elsewhere (Nordmann et al., 2022) but my favourite part of writing that paper was reading Cooper and Robinson (2000), a paper that is similar to Jerez et al. (2021) in offering suggestions for how to improve lectures. They begin by describing an example of an effective, active lecture which is full of interaction and discussion, but note that ‘few professors teaching large classes have the state-of-the-art technology described in this vignette’. The technology being described is the millennium-era Mentimeter. Learning technology has progressed – we now have multiple options for sophisticated large in-class polling, questions, and discussion. By all means, argue for better teaching methods and mindful pedagogical choices, but let’s be sure our arguments actually reflect the environment we now teach and learn in.
So where next for lecture capture debate and research? First, if we must keep asking the question of attendance and lecture capture, then let’s try and ask it in a better way. The link between recordings and attendance is entirely inconsistent and there’s little robust evidence that it’s the presence of recordings that is the key driver of attendance. So what is? Related, let’s focus on engagement not attendance, and remember that those are two different things: you can have engaged students who aren’t showing up and disengaged students who are. These are the interesting questions, not ‘should I record my lectures?’.
Second, any absolute statement about what does and does not work in higher education is essentially just screaming into the wind. There’s almost never a single right answer – calls to abandon lectures or recordings are as unhelpful as the viewpoint that lectures should be the only mode of teaching, or that we should record everything. Some lectures, for some students, and on some topics, would be better delivered asynchronously. Some lectures, for some students, and on some topics, would be better delivered as a flipped classroom. Some lectures, for some students, and on some topics, aren’t appropriate for recording because they contain a high amount of interactivity or discussion of sensitive topics. There’s always nuance, and a range of factors should be considered.
Finally, we must recognise that with every decision we make there’s a trade-off that reveals and reflects our priorities. I feel very strongly that the benefits of providing lecture capture outweigh the costs and I would rather risk a few students not showing up because there’s a recording than deny my most disadvantaged students a lifeline for continuing their education. The ‘new normal’ has so far proven itself to be neither of those things. Let’s keep what was good about Covid and pivot to a new way of doing things, rather than going back to how it was… because that wasn’t great for everyone.
Dr Emily Nordmann is Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director of Education at the University of Glasgow [pictured above, lecturing]. [email protected]
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