Sunday, September 16, 2012

How Lecture Capture Changed my (Teaching) Life: Part 1

In early August 2011, just a few weeks before the start of the fall semester at the University of Texas, Austin, I received a rather strange email from Mike Heidenreich in the College of Liberal Arts ITS Department.  In the email, Mike outlined a new classroom technology that the ITS Department was trialing--a lecture capture system from Echo360--that I could adapt for my Introduction to Ancient Rome lecture class (about 200 students).  He told me that this lecture capture would "capture" both the audio and computer screen (my Power Point slides) and make them available to the class.  It was a hectic time of year--I was busy supervising my department's graduate student Latin teachers and trying to get my own classes ready to go. I deleted the email without responding and without giving the proposal much thought.

A few weeks later, Mke re-sent the same email and, in his gentle but persistent way, asked me if I had any questions he could answer.  This time, I read through the description of the lecture capture technology and thought about whether it was a good idea.  My immediate, gut instinct: no way in hell!  I had been teaching large lecture classes for several years by this point, ranging from about 75-225 students.  This was my second time teaching the Introduction to Ancient Rome course, a department staple.  I never posted my slides online and I tried hard to encourage students to come to class even if I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle.  As well, because an increasing number of students with disabilities had an accommodation that gave them access to my slides and the lecture notes of a classmate, it was becoming increasingly impossible to stop the distribution of the in class material.  As I chewed on the idea of, in essence, allowing them to never come to class--I had no efficient way to take attendance at this point--I found myself stuck on one question: what was my main objective in this course?

In Fall 2011, the answer to that was fairly simple: it was to teach them a basic narrative of Roman history from 800 BC-476 AD; and see them demonstrate that mastery through a series of exams (multiple choice and short answer).  I tried to engage them in some discussion during in class lectures (aka "content delivery"), but these discussions tended to be pretty superficial and not much more than them parroting back to me facts from the textbook readings.  If the bulk of the class was content delivery, they really didn't need to be in a certain room at a certain time enjoying the pleasure of my company so long as they thought they could learn better at a distance.  Now, I don't say this to discount the importance of class time.  Had we been studying the class and taking attendance, I am quite sure there would have been a strong correlation between attendance and performance on exams.  But, if I am being honest with myself, that had more to do with the fact that good students tend to be disciplined and tend to understand that there are intangibles in the learning process that happen during that in class time (e.g. the chance to ask questions, a feeling of connectedness to instructor and other students).  I realized that I was fighting a losing battle if I was going to motivate students to come to class by, in essence, making my rehash of the content from their textbooks difficult to get.  By this point, all they had to do was deputize one person to show up to class and take notes and then post those notes on google docs (and, in fact, this is exactly what they did with exam study guides).  In the previous fall, I had students surreptitiously snapping pics of the slides with their cell phones and circulating those to groups of their classmates.  In other words, the days of limiting access to content were done.

Once I realized that a. as the class was currently designed, the aim of the class was not getting everyone in a particular room at a particular time but rather, to see them demonstrate a mastery of a narrative of Roman history from 800 BC-476 AD through whatever learning strategies worked for them; and b. trying to force class attendance was futile, it was an easy decision to adopt the lecture capture. At the very least, I figured it would level the playing field and let everyone have equal access to the class lectures.  What I did not anticipate was how this decision would revolutionize my approach to teaching this particular class, and to teaching in general.

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