Jul 31, 2012

Lecture Capture, Technology, and Education

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About a year and a half back, while still teaching at Fayetteville State University, I got involved with an activity -- and really, a commitment -- called by the rather elevated or exiting name of "lecture capture."  That's not a bad term for it, since one does indeed capture course lectures by some type of recording.  But, it is a bit misleading, since it easily gives the impression that the main part of the associated complex of pedagogical activities consists primarily in that act (however often repeated) of recording lectures -- either voice alone or video.

It's true, of course, that unless lectures are being recorded, there's no lecture capture, so recording is a necessary component.  But from a teaching and learning perspective, it's really just a small part of what is involved -- and putting stress solely on the situation of recording without attending to other aspects is likely to result in not particularly effective, useful, or interesting materials emerging from the process.  This last year, since moving to Marist College, I've continued videorecording my class lectures, but doing certain things differently, adding new ideas, trying new techniques.

Arguably the most significant change I made last Fall was to no longer send videos of my class sessions to a third party, who would then upload them into an institutional channel.  Instead, I upload them into my own YouTube channel (which incidentally, has just been incorporated into YouTube EDU).  This not only eliminates the need to put the videos through another set of hands -- a minor concern in any case, given that the IT person I worked with at FSU, Suzanne Hesseltine, was extremely conscientious and competent.  The really important consequences of shifting from FSU's institutional channel to my own channel have much more to do with three key values: autonomy, creativity, and interactivity.

Why Educators Should Develop Their Own Channels: Autonomy

There are, to be sure, some potential advantages to harnessing one's educational video production to a college or university institutional channel.  Not least of these is the convenience of just creating material which someone else can upload and maintain.  If the institution has any real YouTube presence or prestige -- for instance, if one were lucky enough to be in YaleCourses -- the would-be video instructor already has a ready-made, and likely interested, audience.  And, if one is not planning on investing the requisite time into experimenting with and exploiting lecture capture as a means for pedagogy, publication, and promoting interaction, setting up and maintaining one's own channel might not be worth the time and effort.

But, when one grasps the multiple potentialities involved and implied in lecture capture, the balance shifts heavily and inexorably to the side of independence.  Let me draw some concrete real-life examples from my own experience that illustrate why autonomy is so valuable for educational lecture capture.

If you look at my Critical Thinking videos, from Spring 2011, my last semester teaching at FSU, and compare them to my Introduction to Philosophy or either of my Ethics sequences (here's #1 and here's #2), one of the first things you might notice is that none of the Critical Thinking videos are in Creative Commons.  They've all simply got the Standard YouTube license, which prevents any other use (myself included) from using the YouTube Editor to sample them, rework or repackage them.  That's a matter of just a few clicks, essentially toggling one setting -- but because those videos are in FSU's channel, even though I produced, shot, and edited the videos, I can't change the most trivial of settings.  They're frozen in stone, for all practical purposes -- and not just the license, but also the titles, tags, the video description, even the video thumbnail.

The opposite is the case for the videos uploaded and organized into playlists in my own channel.  I've gone back to many of them over the last year and added better descriptions and tags, even changed the titles -- all of this spurred by insights emerging from ongoing experience, ideas that never all occur at the same time, once and for all, but which have to be grasped and acted upon when they arise.  That sort of flexibility is eroded by handing over your videos to someone else, particularly to an institution.  Even playlists -- the key method for organizing video material on YouTube -- suffer from this rigidity when handled by institutions.  Again, compare my own playlist Critical Thinking with FSU's playlist FSU Lectures - Philosophy, in which my Critical Thinking course lectures get mixed up with a few Philosophy of Religion guest lectures I did, even with a talk about my book delivered during National Library Week -- presumably if any other professors were found willing to record any of their endeavors in Philosophy, they'd wind up in that playlist as well.

If your video activities, if your lectures, discussions, and responses become anything more than just a static record of what occurred in your classes or during your talks -- if they make an integral (and perhaps growing) contribution to your pedagogical approach, if they contribute to your public persona as an educator or professional, if they are less finished products and more launching points and loci for further enquiry and interaction -- then you cannot do without the measure of autonomy so easily afforded by starting and using your own YouTube channel.

Ongoing Online Creativity Requires Autonomy

This reveals another equally vital value, which requires autonomy as its basis, but which goes beyond it, providing a better idea of why such autonomy matters so much.  Lecture capture by its very nature involves creativity on some level -- after all, by the mere fact of recording, then editing, then uploading one's classroom activities into a publicly accessible video format and community, you're creating something, not merely replicating it.  In fact, even (it should be especially!) for us philosophers, classroom teaching inherently involves dramatic, theatrical, rhetorical dimensions.  Aristotle himself knew this, remarking in the Rhetoric that all teaching and learning involves some lexis, some style or delivery, the capacity to hold attention and communicate.

As an aside, I suspect that one reason I so often hear from the people I converse with in all walks of life, that their brief college encounters with Philosophy disappointed and bored them has much less to do with any unwillingness or lack of preparation on their part, and much more with failures or refusals of philosophy instructors to integrate this vital dimension with the more abstract, seemingly more intellectual activity and material -- to meet their audiences where they are in order to lead them further.  I know that for myself, when the material, the students, and our interaction evoke considerable energy, even emotion from me during the class session, I sense a release, almost a crash, after the students leave similar to what other performers report when they step off the stage.  Those highs and lows of energy are simply the demands of the kind of creativity involved.

Another shape creativity takes on in lecture capture involves the realization of a kind of freedom to make, to form, to develop whatever one decides upon -- horizons of possibility open up when then call or cajole one towards their realization, perhaps not all or even most of them, but at least some of them.  Again, I should point out that institutional involvements need not rule this out -- any institution seriously committed to online education, to promoting rather than just preaching the value of lifelong learning, to a mission of full participation in the contemporary marketplace of ideas would appoint some staff committed to working collaboratively with faculty not just in technical aspects of producing educational videos but in actual creation, evoking from them confessions of their passions, their desires, their seemingly only idle hopes, and then working with them to realize those.

You can, of course, do that for yourself, admittedly in a different, necessarily less dialogical manner -- that's one of the fields of possibility which possessing your own YouTube channel, where you call the shots and make the decisions, opens up.  I realized, for instance, that I needn't confine myself to simply recording lectures for the classes I've been lucky enough to get to teach (in a career so far spent teaching non-philosophy-majors things like Critical Thinking and Ethics).  With just a flipcam, tripod, and laptop -- if I wanted, and if I put in the planning and work -- I could produce an entire video course series devoted, say, to whatever topics about St. Anselm I might like to talk about, or to the main authors involved in the 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates (the topic of my recent book, Reason Fulfilled by Revelation), or to . . . well, pretty much anything you determine worth researching and talking about. There's no guarantee that "If you build it, they will come," but nothing actually stands in the way of building it when you go off on your own.

This is a good point to briefly note another, connected, kind of creativity which becomes possible once you've got and start building your YouTube channel.  Interestingly, this involves employing resources external to YouTube -- not least because YouTube itself seems to be dropping the ball.  Video lectures hosted in YouTube have the potential to provide the central node for a whole web of associated and integrated educational materials -- just think, for instance, about what handouts and worksheets, interactive or at least online quizzes, compiled links, as well as interactions with the author/presenter would offer to enhance the educational experience of watching an interesting, well-put-together video!

As it stands right now, if you want to do something like that, you basically have to go outside of YouTube.  You can receive and respond to comments -- I'll talk about that below -- and there's now apparently some capacity to connect up your YouTube channel with Google Hangouts (which for me fails every time I try it out!).  YouTube EDU also lets its members associate documents with videos -- but they have to be hosted somewhere else (mine so far are in my Academia.edu teaching documents).  It's almost sad to see how rudimentary YouTube EDU is at this point, and to realize that YouTube itself (along with Google) remains more or less clueless with respect to the basic requirements of effective online education -- this isn't rocket science after all, and they are supposed to be industry leaders, aren't they?

Still, if you build outside of YouTube, all sorts of creative possibilities suggest themselves.  You can embed any given video, nesting it inside of some other platform, and connecting it with whatever other resources you think will complement it well.  I know that, as I watch my own lecture/discussion videos from previous classes -- as I use them in new, later classes -- I see points where a certain kind of handout would be helpful not only for my in-class-students, but for anyone else watching the video.  I envision ways in which I might explain the material in other, complementary formats.  Means by which I might provoke reflection on students parts -- for instance, worksheets dealing with the topics -- start to suggest themselves.  I could go on and on with examples. All of this might be seen in a rather trivial way as "creative" -- a creative "situation".  I'm much more interested, however, in those actual products, and in the creativity involved in producing them, that creativity of production unleashed, or at least outlined, by having a video in place.  Notice too that this requires the "stake" one has -- and actually feels  -- when the content is actually one's own, not just on the production end, but all down the line.

As an example of what you can do with YouTube that brings these different threads together, I've recently started producing a series of videos -- the beginnings of a course, if you will -- dealing with Existentialist philosophy and literature.  So far, I've published only seven of the forty or so planned videos for the sequence -- just Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Sartre (though Nietzsche is coming soon).  I've been rereading and thinking a lot about Existentialism (both theist and atheist) -- a topic, or rather way of life, dear to me in my teens and twenties --  over the last several months, and have decided not only to produce a lot of supplementary material to support the videos, but actually a textbook, which I'll publish most likely as an ebook.  Now, why did I embark on this project -- one which I'm hoping will bear fruit for me as a philosopher as I reread and reconsider, after nearly two decades of maturation on my part, the "classics" of Existentialism?  Viewers asked me to produce more videos on particular thinkers, including Heidegger and Sartre, so I decided to do a set of Existentialists.

Interactivity Requires Autonomy Too

One of the best aspects of my experiences with lecture capture has been my series of interactions with other YouTube users.  As it turns out, the entire process and its products has turned out not only to be very useful for my students -- who love being able to go back and review the class lectures on demand -- but to provide usefulness, entertainment, even enjoyment to a much vaster audience than I had ever envisioned.  The image up above, at the very beginning of this piece, provides one of out now literally thousands of examples -- a guy watching one of my lecture/discussion videos on his iPad up in his Alaska home.

If you look just at my publicly available Youtube comments (692 at present) -- by other viewers, and by myself in response -- setting aside my interactions in private messages and on my Facebook page (which has its own private messages), my teaching videos developed and posted in the last year have been used by a variety of people for all sorts of purposes:  students enrolled in other profs courses wanting to understand philosophers better, lifelong learners all over the globe, other students overseas using my videos to prepare for national examinations (Oh, to live in a country where familiarity with Philosophy was required!)

I'm still small-scale enough that I actually thank new subscribers personally for their patronage -- I'm three shy of the 600 subscribers mark as I write -- but their numbers have been growing more rapidly as of late.  I also respond to nearly every comment, and carry on dialogues -- sometimes friendly, sometimes polemical -- with the commentators and subscribers.  I've actually noticed two interesting trends developing in the last several months, regarding comments in YouTube.

The first is that -- despite, or perhaps even because of, the fact that I get quite a few comments comparing me visually to The Dude or to Penn Gillette (depending on whether I wear my hair down or up!) , which might not bode well for a philosopher -- I get quite a few excellent ideas stemming from viewers' comments, some of which I follow up upon, many more of which I wish I had the time to follow up on.  The second development is that recently the more or less frivolous trolling exhibitions of critics inevitable on YouTube now provoke reactions from some of my subscribers, freeing me up to address more serious objections, challenges, or questions. 

Returning from interactions to the matter of interactivity itself, the key point to note is that unless you are loading your own videos into your own channel, whatever interaction you have with your commentators and subscribers -- the people watching your videos, interested enough in them to write something about them -- will be stifled, at least to some degree.  Again, I'm fortunate that Susanne Hesseltine scrupulously passes on to me any noteworthy comments on the Critical Thinking course videos in which I'm exhibit A.  But, there's nothing like interacting with your interlocutors in an unmediated manner -- nothing that can substitute or suffice for it.  Without the autonomy provided by your own channel, that's simply not going to occur.

Postscript:  Where the "Experts" Go Wrong

One of the most interesting experiences for me -- admittedly not from a purely, objectively, unemotionally pedagogical perspective (if such a stance actually exists!) but rather motivated by intertwining strains of gleeful contrarianism and unapologetic old-school, traditional teaching -- has been seeing the discrepancies between the advice and admonitions rendered by "pedagogical experts" and how things really pan out in the high-tech, web 2.0, "millennial generation" world.

I remember being subjected to a slickly-produced, but simply awful, video -- produced doubtless by a different generation but starring a few examples of current college students -- which after spouting a number of statistics about internet uses, hours spent online, and other variously numbered items, told us educators that the process and basis for education had so fundamentally changed that we must ourselves either change or die, keep on with old-fashioned subject-centered chalk and talk or get with the program of "learner-centered" interactive, blah-blah-blah-blah. . . . .

The Provost at FSU -- a typical baby-boomer educator type -- was very excited about our need to take the message to heart and make the necessary shifts and changes in our pedagogy -- and, to his credit, not just to make those alterations, but to really think about them.  GenXer profs and the up-and-coming young GenY profs, freshly-minted, evinced considerable -- and entirely reasonable, when you're versed in the history of ideas -- skepticism.  The fact that a YouTube search to try to find (so I can link to) that video has been fruitless might provide just the least bit of confirmation to that skepticism, no?

According to many web 2.0 experts, my lecture/discussion videos ought to be -- for anyone besides my own students -- totally boring, unengaging, YouTube equivalents of "dead men walking." Strangely enough, the pedagogy "experts" turn out to be almost entirely off (perhaps a follow-up post would be a good place to explore why). Instead, I tend to get these kinds of comments, which I'll end with -- whether actually deserved or just fortuitous -- since they tend to give a decent impression of the sorts of interactions these hour-long videos provoke and produce.
waaaay better than the lectures i found online from Oxford and Yale!! Very helpful, Thank you..... if only you went through the Phaedo and Symposium and I would be set for my summer exam!  
Love this vid
Small point could you add the names in the description box ? for lazy people :D
 Nice video! Only one suggestion: Mind to improve the audio quality. The static level is high in my opinion, maybe you can put the mic nearer to you.
Thanks again for your videos. I have found through my discussions with the kids at our university the same concerns about morals and ethics. Your videos give great insight on how to address these types of questions with our students. Please keep making the videos as I enjoy being challenged to critically think through these areas myself.

 Please keep up the good work, thank you for sharing this :)
I have a super difficult prof this summer semester and your videos have helped a bunch. I appreciate it!
Which 'school' of philosophy has influenced you the most? And who's your 'favorite' philosopher?

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