In this column last December, McGill University psychology professor Donald Taylor critiqued the use of recorded, online lectures (“Let’s not kill the classroom experience”). As is clear from his opinion piece, his considerations are viewed through his own specific lens. Dr. Taylor is concerned that if lectures are readily available online, classes will suffer diminished attendance. This can happen, but I believe that online lectures can have great value, depending on the type of course that is being offered.
There are a number of classes at McGill that have more than 500 students, including Dr. Taylor’s social psychology course. As he implies in his article, there is significant questioning and even debate in his large class. Having taught many large classes myself, I have to commend him for apparently engaging students to this extent, since the experience of many instructors is that in most introductory science courses, students often do not have the confidence to pose discussion questions even when given friendly invitations.
The topic of social psychology seems to lend itself quite well to a discussion format. However, there are a great many courses in the physical sciences that require a different approach. Often it is difficult for students to absorb the information on the first pass, so they ask for some form of lecture review.
The system developed at McGill (COursesOnLine, or COOL) not only provides the audio portion of a lecture but also, for those courses where visual information is used, captures slides or films and animations in synchrony with the lecturer’s comments, all with full navigation capacity. My experience in seven different chemistry courses has shown that visual material is not only important to engage the students, but is absolutely vital to portray complex reactions, visualize chemical changes, examine modern inventions and show molecules in action.
In dealing with large classes over several decades, I have concluded that the lecture method can indeed be dramatically enhanced by recording the details of a lecture so that students can review what actually went on; this method can also include questions and answers that arose in class. Our lecture-capture system has been ongoing since the fall of 2000, and over this period more than 67,000 students at McGill have had an opportunity to review their classes, including all of the visual material that was presented.
Clearly it is important to engage students; our science faculty has recently initiated use of the personal response system, also called “clickers.” These devices were first used during the fall semester by a number of science instructors, and student response has been positive. One could easily imagine their use in a social psychology class to allow students to express their opinions and to enhance opportunities for discussion. In my own comparisons with the lecture-capture method, the clicker system was not quite as well regarded. When students were asked the question, “How much does this technique aid in helping you to learn?” the overall ranking for clickers was 3.5 out of 5.0, while the lecture-capture technique was given a 4.5 rating. It’s clear both techniques help the student.
Detailed questionnaires in a number of science courses very clearly indicate that students need to review the material in order to assimilate it. One could argue that this is because the live lecture was inadequately presented; but the overwhelming feedback says, rather, that the material presented is often so intricate that it takes a second review to make it clear.
While surveys indicate that some students do not attend class regularly simply due to the convenience of the online lecture, there are many additional reasons for helping students retrieve lecture material. Classes are legitimately missed due to illness, religious considerations, family problems, athletic events, other extra-curricular activities and commuting difficulties.
While Dr. Taylor acknowledges that online lectures can assist students who are studying in a second language as well as those who need to work to meet expenses, he then advocates abolishing lecture-capture for all classes. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater ended when hot water became plentiful. The genie is now out of the bottle. He also claims that McGill’s “default” position is to record lectures. In fact, the default position at McGill is to not record lectures unless the instructor agrees. Dr. Taylor indeed has this right and if his students miss a lecture, he can give his reasons why he opted out.
He stresses in his article that students do react to lectures, but I posit that one of the most common reactions they have while taking notes in class is a more mundane question: “What did he/she just say?”
If all classes could be limited to fewer than 20 students, it is likely that lecture-capture might be less important. Until that time comes, I believe it is appropriate to provide help where possible. During the past semester at McGill, nearly 130 courses engaging more than 33,000 students have been recorded. I believe our students to be serious and hardworking and their positive opinions abundantly demonstrate the assistance that recorded lectures provide.
David Harpp is the Macdonald Professor of Chemistry at McGill University.