The Report: higher education ‘on-demand’

UK university lecturers are wary of technology’s influence as it infiltrates the classroom, but are they pushing back against a shift that’s inevitable?

The Breakdown

● UK lecturers fear that lecture capture devices can be used by management to monitor their performance in the classroom

  “I think communication around policies can be really important because a lot of people aren’t aware that the policies they have actually do protect them against this kind of thing” – Emily Nordmann, University of Glasgow

  Access to high-quality digital learning resources is a high priority for more than 90% of UK university students

  “I think it’s really important to recognise that an online course is not simply an offline course that’s put on the internet” – Emily Nordmann

  The Ucas Media Student Lifestyle Report revealed that 72% of UK students are active Netflix users 

  “The ‘YouTube-isation’ or ‘Netflix-isation’ of resources for people who are paying for their education sort of makes sense. The worry is that if the current providers don’t want to do that, then maybe some new providers will do it instead” – Duncan Peberdy, Jisc

From 25 November to 4 December last year, more than half of UK universities were impacted by a strike that saw lecturers and support staff walk out from their posts. Organised by the University College Union (UCU) in response to low pay and sector-wide pension cuts, it marked the second time in just two years that the nation’s universities were subject to this form of industrial action.

But the UCU’s instructions to participating staff differed significantly this time around, urging them to switch off lecture recording software and devices before announcing to students that they’d be taking part. Following the February and March 2018 strikes, in which the University of Edinburgh was accused of preparing to use old lecture recordings to interrupt staff action, their concerns were not unfounded.

The issue forms part of a much broader topic: the culture of fear or resistance among university lecturers surrounding the implementation of edtech. In the case of lecture capture, teachers worry the tool will be used by upper-level management to ‘spy’ on classroom activities and monitor staff performance in a way that could be deemed unethical. If you consider the Edinburgh incident as an isolated case – after which the institution explicitly banned the rerunning of lecture recordings during industrial action – is this just a matter of staff fearing the unknown?

The importance of effective policies

“I think communication around policies can be really important because a lot of people aren’t aware that the policies they have actually do protect them against this kind of thing,” said Emily Nordmann, a University of Glasgow lecturer who has spent years researching lecture capture technology (LCT). “The policies are sometimes seen as these heavy-handed documents that are trying to make them do something they don’t want to do, and actually, protection is often built-in to the protocol surrounding these devices.”

But in a hyper-connected era defined by social movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, lecturers are afraid of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and it being permanently captured on record. “Some are saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t want to have that captured’, or ‘I’ve got to take more care of my personal appearance’, and that’s coming from both men and women. Actually, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing – why shouldn’t you be a little bit more professional?” responded Duncan Peberdy, senior lead of digital learning spaces at Jisc.

The popularity of devices such as smartphones and tablets, which are both interactive and portable, has made video a commonplace feature of contemporary education. Research from Boclips revealed that in 2018, 70% of teachers worldwide were using video in the classroom multiple times per week.

Measuring the impact of video is no easy feat given its status as a moving target with varying objectives, audiences and metrics. But in the words of James L. McQuivey, if “a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video has to be worth at least 1.8 million […].” When you consider Cisco’s forecast that 82% of all online traffic will be video by 2022, it’s hard to dispute this theory.

Peberdy claims that there are more misconceptions surrounding LCT than any other form of technology in higher education today. He feels that many educators lack the vision or appropriate guidance needed to understand its full potential, using their right to opt-out of recordings, which cuts students off from informative and empowering digital content.

“There’s a lot of resistance to online delivery,” he said. 

“I know of a university that put lecture capture in many years ago now, and it was four years before it went live because they had that many objections from staff and had to deal with a lot of legal factors. By the time they were ready to go live, all the equipment was out of date. I’m aware of another university which, probably two years ago now, put in lecture capture, spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on it, and then ran two days of training with the manufacturer to teach staff how to use the system, and during those two days, not a single person came along. Most universities don’t have continuing professional development (CPD) policies in place that require staff to participate in such sessions.”

Lecture capture
There are more misconceptions surrounding LCT than any other form of technology in higher education today

Students are calling for digital resources

Lecture capture is used heavily in universities like Newcastle and Loughborough, but in these cases, its implementation was tied to student demand. “It’s been the students that have led the change, not the academics wanting to use it,” Peberdy explained. “Students have said, ‘We’re missing out, we’re not able to look at things to revise or recapture’, so where it’s widely used across one campus, in most places, students have driven that change.”

Video as a form of media consumption is undoubtedly big business. The Ucas Media Student Lifestyle Report revealed that the amount spent on music, video and games (£7.2bn) surpassed expenditure on books, magazines and newspapers (£7.1bn) for the first time in 2018. Students are buying into it, and universities risk floundering in an increasingly competitive recruitment market if they fail to embrace such tools. 

Many educators have cited concerns over how the availability of recorded lectures will impact classroom attendance, fearing it could eventually cause their role to become obsolete. While major vendors of lecture capture hardware like Echo360, Panopto and Mediasite have conducted surveys that show a positive correlation between LCT and classroom attendance, others have had different results. A 2018 study by Martin R. Edwards and Michael Clinton examined the impact of lecture capture introduction and usage in an undergraduate module at King’s College London. Data collected from a matched cohort before and after its installation showed that attendance substantially dropped in three lectures after capture became available.

Nordmann conducted her first study into LCT in 2015. Her aim was to explore the synergy between lecture recording usage, attendance, and subsequent achievement – in this case measured by exam grades. “In that paper, we found very little relationship between attendance and recording usage,” she said, noting that there were, however, some interesting interactions with GPA.

“Better students with higher GPAs, they’re actually able to use the recording if they miss a lecture to overcome the gaps in their knowledge, whereas the weaker students aren’t,” she explained. “We also found that non-native speakers in first year were using the recordings more than native speakers, and in those cases the discrepancy disappeared, which suggests that they use it for pedagogically appropriate reasons when they need it.” Nordmann points out that the first semester of their first year is when the language barrier for international students is at its most challenging, and in this scenario, lecture capture becomes a valuable tool that reinforces learning and helps students refine their English language capabilities. 

That being said, in the Unite Students Insight Report 2019, respondents indicated a marked preference for face-to-face learning approaches. When asked what they believed should take the place of lectures, 55% opted for “more face-to-face learning that isn’t lectures”, with 30% opting for more digital forms of learning. 

The student opinion dictates that campus-based delivery isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

But that’s not to say that students don’t value and appreciate digital learning forms. In the same report, qualitative research showed that applicants want their prospective university to provide a strong digital offering, which they expect to be well designed and intuitive. Failure to do so on the university’s part can lead to feelings of frustration among the student body. Additionally, 44% of students use apps independently to help them study, highlighting the prevalence of digital learning aids in and outside of the classroom. 

In fact, access to digital learning material – such as course notes, exam results, administrative/admissions information, and timetables – is a high priority for more than 90% of UK university students. “I certainly think that lecture capture is becoming ubiquitous to the point where, if you don’t have it, that might potentially put applicants off,” said Nordmann. 

The cyber-student experience

Beyond the humble video lies the virtual learning environment (VLE); learning management systems such as Moodle and Blackboard that provide the tools required for e-learning in one integrated system. VLEs present resources (which, of course, include video), alongside activities and interactions within a course structure. 

Not only do these online hubs make the student experience engaging and interactive, they also support the flipped classroom model, allowing students to familiarise themselves with learning material before attending class.

Nordmann’s former university looked at granting students access to the VLE after gaining acceptance, before they set foot on campus – a move they hoped would ease the tumultuous period of transition. “I don’t like charging my students any more than they’re already charged,” she explained, “so the idea that all of that content would be available online is amazing to me. But it really isn’t about what’s available online – it’s also about benefiting from the campus experience and community which is what students are actually paying for.”

Peberdy agrees, stating that institutions which have implemented lecture capture systems must strive to promote a campus life that students won’t want to miss. If you’re creating a learning experience that’s no better than simply doing it online, why would you expect students to turn up?

Research on the flipped classroom structure has grown exponentially since 2012, though there is still so much to be measured. The trend in existing results seem to be positive, with O’Flaherty and Phillips’ 2015 study (perhaps the most frequently cited research on the subject) stating that flipped learning students either earn higher scores than those in traditional settings, or otherwise that the differences are not statistically significant.

It’s clear that both students and education providers stand to gain from making video – including tools like lecture capture – an integral part of the university offering. When video forms part of a broader virtual learning experience, the commercial gain is huge. It gives today’s digital natives a platform from which they can access course material 24/7 from anywhere in the world with a strong enough network connection, not to mention the possibilities it brings to SEND students and working adult learners.

“I think it’s really important to recognise that an online course is not simply an offline course that’s put on the internet,” said Nordmann. “They need very different pedagogies, very different approaches; you can’t just put an on-campus course online, which is what you would be doing with lecture capture.”

Nordmann believes that the increasing awareness of the growing diversity within higher education can only be a good thing. “I’m currently involved in a project with QAA Scotland that looks at using lecture recording to help students coming through widening access programmes. These are students who have caring responsibilities, they are commuters, and they often face financial pressures. Here, I think the on-demand nature of being able to catch up is important if we want higher education to become more diverse. It’s no longer the case that students don’t have any other responsibilities and giving them that flexibility is a real perk.”

The future is digital

According to the Ucas report, Netflix is the world’s most popular entertainment service, and 72% of UK students are currently active users. Imagine the education sector being able to harness that sort of power. As we move towards a more on-demand format, we must remember that the students have spoken and they’re calling for a varied learning experience, asking for a carefully structured blend of quality digital tools and face-to-face instruction.

“The way that education has been delivered in pretty much the same way for many years is starting to change quite quickly because of technology,” said Peberdy. “The ‘YouTube-isation’ or ‘Netflix-isation’ of resources for people who are paying for their education sort of makes sense. The worry is that if the current providers don’t want to do that, then maybe some new providers will do it instead. I can envision platforms such as Amazon, Apple or Microsoft coming in and making online degree courses available. Of course, they’d have to be validated by the relevant authorities and regulators, but you can definitely see that happening. We’re already starting to see – more in the States than the UK – people being able to take one module at one university and another somewhere else. That mobility of degree has been talked about for a long time, and will the ability to access material from other institutions as part of one degree form part of that offering?”

Ultimately, teachers mustn’t view these devices as a threat to their standing but embrace them as tools for professional development. After all, technology is a powerful supplement that opens new realms of academic opportunity. Traditional modes of teaching are fast becoming outdated, and if university evolved into an on-demand service, it would promote an education that truly knows no borders. 

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