Switch off the cameras please

The debate about the future of web-lectures

Tekening Bas van der Schot

By Vincent Bongers

Students are glad they can watch their lectures again in the comfort of their own home, but some lecturers abhor web-lectures. At Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s Law Faculty, they’re switching off the cameras because no one’s attending lectures anymore. Will Leiden follow suit? Or does the university welcome digital education?

(Het originele, en iets langere, Nederlandstalige artikel staat hier)
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) began recording lectures in 2011, but started gradually reducing the numbers this academic year. “At the time, we noticed that some students were selling home-made recordings, so we decided to put our own recordings online”, recalls Professor Hemme Battjes of the Amsterdam Law Faculty’s Board. “However, the side effects took us by surprise.”
“Very few people were attending lectures any more and it encouraged poor study conduct. Some students listened to everything more or less at once, although it’s very important to pace the work for the course. Offering web-lectures is giving the wrong impression,” he explains.
“Doing away with them works: far more students are turning up for lectures, although I must admit we haven’t noticed any significant differences in exam marks,” Battjes continues.
What do Leiden students think about it? “I wouldn’t like it if Leiden followed VU’s example”, remarks Mireille van Dijk, a third-year Law student and first-year Psychology student.
“Oh, no, no, no, they really mustn’t”, agrees Michelle Griffioen, a third-year Criminology student and first-year Psychology student.
Van Dijk explains: “I nearly always go to lectures but I watch the recordings quite a lot too. I watch them if I missed them the first time, or if it’s a difficult course – having the option to see them again is quite nice. Besides, sometime I have two subjects at the same time so it’s great to be able to follow the ones I missed on a monitor.”
Griffioen adds: “It’s nice to sit at home and watch in comfort. Some lecturers speak quickly and then it’s useful to put it on hold. And it’s easier to make notes. It takes longer though and it’s tempting to watch everything at once.”
The opinions of Leiden lecturers on the lecture recordings are divided. “We could hardly stop putting them online now, even we wanted to”, remarks Ymre Schuurmans, Professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law. “We once held a survey as to which forms of education students thought important and watching lectures again at home came first by a long stretch.”
According to Schuurmans, the web-lectures have an immense impact. “A lot is mandatory in the first year, so there’s not really a striking effect there, but with subjects like Constitutional and Administrative Law in the second year and Procedural Administrative Law in the third year, I always notice a huge drop. Sometimes, there are 350 students on the course but fewer than sixty in the audience. And in my view, response from the audience is important. When there are fewer students in the hall, it’s harder to tell whether your lectures still tie in with the way students see the world.”
“Not all students turn up”, says Jan Crijns, Professor of Criminal and Procedural Law. “That’s always been the case. I didn’t notice a particularly drop after we started recording lectures. There is some effect, but it’s insignificant. It’s even possible that students who wouldn’t go to lectures anyway watch them now. Perhaps a number of students who had given up hope of passing their courses will pass now.”
Schuurmans suspects that a recorded lecture does not come across as well as the real thing: “You try to make the matter interesting, but it’s not television. It could be extremely boring to watch a lecture on a screen. It strikes me as quite difficult to concentrate on it at home, too.”
There those at the Law Faculty who do not approve of the web-lectures at all. “Attending a lecture in a hall is good practice”, claims Andreas Kinneging, Professor of Legal Philosophy. “You need to listen carefully. Con-cen-trate! Exercise your attention span. When a student gets a job later on, he or she will need to understand everything that’s said straight away. You can’t rewind a case or put it on hold. Real life doesn’t have a pause button.” Nonetheless, Kinneging puts his lectures on Blackboard. “That’s the custom here and I follow it. But actually, I want to stop doing it.”
Michael Klos thinks web-lectures give students more freedom. “If you don’t put them online, you’ll stifle the students’ creativeness”, he says. “Students want to do internships, or follow courses at other universities, so they might miss lectures in Leiden. In that case, it’s important that they can rely on the web-lectures. The student loan system is forcing students to find jobs, making it even more important to make the lectures available. And don’t forget: the recordings are a real help to students with impairments.”
The Faculty Council discussed the lecture recordings in January. “Our policy is to stick to our chosen path”, Peter van Es, of the Faculty Board, said at the time. “That means that all major lectures must be recorded and published at least two weeks before the exams. It was enough trouble to get everyone to agree on this point and if we decide to change it, it’s going to be chaos. We mustn’t cause confusion.”
The recordings are popular. “A web-lecture from the Law faculty usually has between 300 and 1,700 views’, says Jeroen Leijen, the faculty’s ICT & Education programme coordinator. “If the system suffers downtime, the emails soon flood in. Students are immediately aware of it when it happens.”
What are other major programmes at Leiden doing? “Almost all of the forty Bachelor courses at Psychology are recorded, says Psychology’s programme director, Arjaan Wit. “They’re only available to students who are following the courses in question. The lectures are published within two days.”
Psychology lecturer Jop Groeneweg’s lectures are not included, with the exception of one or two.” “I think you lose some of the spontaneity if you’re under surveillance and the quality of the lectures deteriorates. If you’re recording, students hesitate to ask anything that pops into their heads. The lecture, with everything the lecturer and students say, becomes available to the whole world and I don’t think it’s a good thing.”
Besides, Groeneweg uses disturbing photographs in his lectures: “Pictures of humiliation and torture from the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib, for instance. I warn my audience that I’m going to show them disturbing pictures so they can leave the room or close their eyes. I would never show those pictures if the lecture were recorded, so I could never give that lecture. That means I’d be restricted by the recordings. I don’t think that lecturers should be forced to toe the line because a small group of students miss lectures – voluntarily or not.”
Schuurmans recognises the problem. “The disadvantage is that I can’t just share any old, real-life anecdote with your audience. I’m a deputy judge as well as being a lecturer. I have to be more careful with detailed stories about legal cases, lawyers and judges when there’s a camera present.”
But weren’t students already recording lectures with their phones before web-lectures were offered? “I don’t allow them to make any recordings, but you can’t stop them, can you? Students who do it anyway know what they’re flouting the rules. But it’s something else again to institutionalise recordings,” Groeneweg replies.
“The web-lectures mean great progress,” says Wit, the psychologist. “I sometimes comment on the literature, or correct an error in a book. Now I can now incorporate that in the exam topic. The same applies to guest lecturers’ talks. I can ask questions about everything because the web-lectures are available. Although there used to be some confusion, voice and sheets are now accepted parts of the exam topics.”
According to Wit, it would be a pity if VU’s decision catches on. “Many ideas about the web-lectures are based on assumptions, but all that’s about to change. Our faculty’s research agency SOLO has studied the use of the recordings. We’re still busy analysing the data but we already know that students really appreciate this service. It truly helps them prepare for their exams. The students also like it because they can catch with a lecture whenever it’s convenient for them.”
“Students who make use of the web-lectures during the course score an average of 7.5. Students who watch them just before the exam score a 6.5. It’s a big difference, but that depends on the study style. Students who work systematically score better marks on average,” he adds.

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