Live video linked lectures? Lancaster, get a grip!

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As campus appears to be getting busier every year, lecturers have to be creative with their teaching methods. To avoid multiple-teaching and to deal with the increasing number of students, a new initiative that has been adopted this year is the live video streaming of lectures to students in other lecture theatres to the ones in which the original lectures are taking place.

Accountancy and Finance is one of the most popular departments, with the largest lectures being attended by over 400 students. The biggest lecture hall on campus, LT1 in the George Fox building, can only accommodate 344 students. As a result, one of the lectures, Introduction to Financial Accounting for Managers, is being streamed into LT2 for about 40 students.

Department Administrator Jill Lupton spoke to SCAN: “…of course it was interesting to try it (the alternative method of presenting a lecture). But the truth is, we had no other option because of not enough rooms… Questionnaire for the students will be held at the end of this term… If there aren’t too many complaints, we will continue.”

When asked whether she finds the streamed lectures equal to the “normal ones”, she hesitated to give a direct answer before responding “…it is not to our preference. There is always another tutor in the smaller lecture hall, just to have a physical member of a staff…but of course there is no chance to interact with the actual lecturer or to stop him speaking…yeah, I suppose the students are put in slight disadvantage.”

To give you more examples, in Marketing 101 (also one of the streamed lectures), there are 168 major students and 379 minors. In Marketing 222 there are 349 minor students. A certain member of the Marketing Administration remarked that the video lectures where: “…like watching TV…” She also mentioned that there was a lot of discussion about this ‘innovative’ method of teaching. However, she refused to give more details, and implied that she would be worried about her position if she did so.

So after all this talk, I decided to frequent one of these streamed lectures – Marketing 101, and Introduction to Financial Accountancy for Managers. The original lectures always took place in LT1 of the George Fox Building, and were then streamed into LT4 and LT2. In both cases, there were supposed to be around 40 students. However, in both cases, there were no more than five! Gazing absent-mindedly at the screen, none of them were taking notes. They were playing with their phones (some throughout the whole lecture); resting their heads on their elbows; crunching on biscuits, or simply looking outside the window. Two of them left in the middle of the lecture.

To get a little feedback,  I asked the students to give me one positive and one negative aspect of the streamed lecture. Every single one gave me the same negative feature, and that is lack of interaction. Not only is it impossible to ask the lecturer questions. It is also impossible to see his or her body language, gestures, or face expression. Listening to a physical person, talking directly to you, is quite a different experience from just watching a small, anonymous figure on a screen.

“I’d rather be in a normal lecture,” said one of the students. “But it doesn’t bother me. If every lecture was like this though, I’d mind.”

 The positive answers were, for example: “If you are late, you don’t get the pressure of walking in. The lectures aren’t as crowded. The video is quite a good quality – I just wish it was on Moodle.”

When asked about playing with his phone during the lecture, one of the students answered: “Well, I do play with my phone and I don’t pay attention when it’s about something I know already. But I have a friend, who never studied marketing before, but she barely shows up for the lectures and doesn’t do anything, she barely pays attention. I guess it’s a bit about self-control…”

The question is, isn’t it the role of the university to provide a certain sense of supervision? As much as the students are all ‘responsible’ for themselves, might it be helpful to many of them if they are simply made to pay attention? Surely it is a fact that when you are in the presence of a lecturer you are much less likely to start playing with your iPhone (even if you still have the full option to do so without being told off)?

The projection of the lecture itself does not take more space than a regular white board. The lecturer is captured in a sub-screen at the top left corner of a screen. Next to him, on the right side, is a significantly larger slide of a graph. While explaining the graph, the lecturer has to use the mouse to point out its parts. The video is clear and of a good quality. Nevertheless, it is not really possible to see the lecturer’s facial expression and gestures. It is also impossible to hear questions asked from the audience. The streaming of the lecture always starts and ends precisely at the time according to the timetable. Therefore, many times, if the lecture isn’t perfectly punctual, he is cut off in middle of his or her conclusion.

Dr Dermot Williamson, who teaches for the Introduction to Accountancy and Finance for Managers, gave us his opinion:

“I don’t think it’s good. I’d like to see all students… I can’t see the reaction of people in LT2. I ask a question, and I can’t hear their answers…I much prefer teaching face to face…”

He explained that his lectures tend to be very interactive. Not only does he communicate with the audience, but he also adjusts the lectures according to the students’ reaction to them. He explains more if they seem puzzled, or changes the lecture into a more interesting one if they seem bored. In this case, though, he lacks the feedback from the students in LT2.

Headshot of Richard Meek
Marketing 101 Lecurer, Richard Meek. Photograph: Mae Reddaway

Marketing 101 lecturer Richard Meek believes that what is happening now is just on the edge of being acceptable.

“I don’t want to prejudge. We should get the students’ view.”

He reckons that the students themselves should decide whether streamed lectures are sufficient solution to the facility issue.

“Are you going to get us more facilities?” the Timetabling Manager Andrew Harding asked at the meeting of the Planning Department, Facilities, and Registry.

When interviewed about the higher admission target with correspondence to the limited facilities capacity, he said that even though the timetabling team always tries to meet the departments’ requirements, any additional students would make it harder.

So what happens next? If the lectures start being streamed instead of taught, one day we might start watching them on Moodle instead of at campus. Seminars can be done via Skype. Why bother turning up to campus at all? This may leave many students asking whether they came to Lancaster University or a slightly less organised version of the Open University.

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