Opposing lecture capture is dis/ableist. Period.

(but critiquing it is useful)

A lot of lecturers worry about lecture recording and lecture capture. A survey from Huddersfield UCU highlighted a substantial number of negative beliefs by staff, many unsubstantiated by the research or the facts. For example, 73% of staff believed that attendance would go down as a result of lecture capture, whereas research is at worst inconclusive – as this report from LSE showed. This excellent blogpost from Teesside University highlights and addresses four main concerns about lecture capture, while Sue Watling’s excellent post for JISC addresses the form of lecture capture most feared by staff: automatic lecture capture. I agree with Watling that automatic lecture capture doesn’t go all the way to addressing issues of access: some students may need subtitles or interpreting (e.g. signing), and some may even need a transcript instead.

However, many of the above adjustments need recording as a starting point (unless lecturers are going to start providing transcripts upfront). For example, if a student requires a lecture to be subtitled, the institution needs to pay someone to add subtitles to the recording – this is much more practicable than trying to subtitle during the lecture. (I have done digital notetaking, where you try to type as the lecturer talks, but this has to be a summary rather than true subtitles, so it’s far from parity of access). Lecture capture alone can be a lifesaver for disabled students in particular (though of course it may be useful for other students, such as those who commute or have caring responsibilities). Stuart Phillipson notes in his blogpost for JISC that at the University of Manchester, “84% of DASS students are using the additional recordings often, over 82% view the recordings as essential to their education and 90% believe having access to additional recordings will improve their examination results.”

In this post, I want to talk about automatic lecture capture, rather than a system where lecturers can opt in. What’s the difference, and why is automatic better? The difference is that rather than relying on a lecturer to decide they want their lectures recorded, students who need lectures captured can be safe in the knowledge that this will happen as standard. Even where lecturers can opt out, but allow students who need them to access the capture, this forces labour onto the student. The student has to raise the issue, request the adjustment, often provide some form of proof or documentation, and may also have to do extra work to access the recording. All this while undertaking the extra labour that being disabled in a dis/ableist society demands, often with less energy/resources to start with. Christine Miserando’s ‘Spoon Theory’ summarises this problem well.

There are legitimate concerns about lecture capture, and I’ll address them below, but I want to be clear: if you choose to avoid lecture capture, you’re choosing your own preferences over disabled access.

The Universities and College Union (UCU), the main trade union for academic staff in UK universities, recently raised the following concerns about lecture capture:

“conference has concerns over blanket recording and automatic uploading of lectures, including:

  • potential use in peer observation
  • issues of academic freedom
  • additional workload and time pressures
  • possible issues for disabled staff and students
  • questions over pedagogic value
  • use of recordings to monitor staff performance
  • the need for guidelines on intellectual property rights
  • the right of the individual to opt out.”

Of course, there are things we need to have in place for lecture capture to work well. I’m fully opposed to people being recorded without their knowledge, for instance, especially students: if lecture capture is used without lectures or students being told, this is a potential violation of privacy. Staff may also have reasons to want their recording restricted to audio and slides (so that their face isn’t showing) – they may be escaping an abuser, for example, or just feel uncomfortable appearing on video. This makes sense. I also feel that staff should be able to control where the lecture capture appears and whether students can download it as a file (this reduces the – admittedly quite small – risk of lectures being uploaded to somewhere public such as YouTube).

I do, however, think that automatic audio/slide capture has huge enough benefits for disabled students that opposing it for the reasons above reflects not only privilege, but dis/ableism – even if those opposing it are themselves disabled. There are many disability-related reasons why a student may be unable to attend a lecture: they may have chronic fatigue or chronic pain, they may suffer from a chronic illness that flares up unpredictably, or they may suffer from a mental health issue that means they struggle with the lecture/campus environment. Even for those who attend, having lecture capture helps students with a Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD) such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or Attention Deficit Disorder who may attend but struggle to take in the whole lecture or take adequate notes. These students may of course be supplied with a note-taker, but they may well still value the chance to rewatch the lecture video to go over difficult concepts, check things or get to grips with a confusing structure.

Lecture capture means that those students who may be unable to watch without accommodations – D/deaf students, for example, may require captions or signing (for which a notetaker is an inadequate compensation) – can have the video adapted to their needs or use it with their own adaptive software. It means that students who struggle to watch a lecture without their own accommodations – talking out loud, for example, or doing something else at the same time – can create the environment they need for their learning without worrying about the other hundred students in the room.

All these advantages seem to me to outweigh any potential disadvantage: saying “you can’t have what you need to learn because it makes me uncomfortable” is the equivalent of opposing a wheelchair access ramp because it ‘spoils’ the façade of a building. It’s thinking that your own mild discomfort is much worse than someone else’s major discomfort – or even complete exclusion. This is privilege in action: and even if a lecturer is disabled themselves, they are using their privilege as the lecturer to exclude the students who don’t have that same privilege and may not have the same power to control the environment. This isn’t to say that disabled staff don’t have their own problems – far from it – but rather that they are not immune from contributing to the exclusion of others.

I do, though, want to address UCU’s concerns one by one. They shouldn’t be enough to stop staff from allowing lecture capture, but I’ll address them anyway, to undermine their use as an excuse for educational dis/ableism.

“potential use in peer observation”

It seems exceptionally unprofessional to object to peer observation in and of itself. You’re paid to do a job; why shouldn’t someone watch you do it once or twice? Observation of teaching is a standard part of most teaching qualifications in HE, and in fact many departments use peer observation as part of their appraisal process. Peer observation is usually used as part of a framework to help staff develop and improve their teaching: UCU’s use of ‘peer observation’ as some kind of nameless horror implies that UK higher education is much less transparent and open to improvement than is in fact the case. Most lecturers I know not only welcome peer observation but seek it out, as well as seeking out observation and comments from senior colleagues and colleagues working in teaching and learning.

Peer observation also tends to be in-person, not via lecture recordings. My team carries out over a hundred observations of teaching per year, and of those we’ve observed four sessions via recording – all of which were done because they took place in China (we’re in the UK, and budget is too tight to fly over just to observe a lecture). I, and every observer I know, prefer to observe in-person so that I can observe what’s going on in the classroom. I prefer to be able to look at the students (a view that lecture capture rightly doesn’t offer) as well as the teacher, as well as gauging the feel of the room. UCU is right that lecture capture shouldn’t be used in peer observation: but the current state of observation practice in HE suggests that this is highly unlikely, and certainly not a convincing reason to oppose lecture capture in itself.

“issues of academic freedom”

Academic freedom is of course vital to teaching and research in universities. However, most universities who use lecture capture also have policies dedicated to maintaining the academic freedom of their staff. Ultimately, the freedom to teach and research should not mean that one can work entirely unseen and unsupervised – and nor does it. Without lecture capture, teaching is still seen by a large number of students (at least if you’re doing it right). Those students may even have devices on which they could record you speaking. Yes, recording lectures means it’s probably not wise to slander somebody, or make extensive use of hate speech. But that’s not a great idea anyway – neither of them make good teaching. Academics who think recording should be banned because it endangers their freedom risk becoming the proverbial graduate student – as immortalised by Dr Karen Kelsky’s The Professor is In – who thinks everyone hates them because they’re ‘too edgy’ and their research is too ‘dangerous’. Your students are largely here to learn, not to get you into trouble: and your teaching isn’t always as ‘risky’ and ‘dangerous’ as you think it is. If you really think you run the risk of getting sued (not harassed or doxxed- see below) if what you teach gets out, you might want to rethink what you teach. Not least because – shock horror – your students might remember what you say (or even note something down) even if your lecture isn’t recorded. Kids, huh?

[Added 5th September]: I need to credit Dr Hannah Boast, in particular, for showing me that in the above paragraph I miscalculated the threats issued to some academics. I stand by the claim that many people overestimate the ‘riskiness’ of their teaching, but as Dr Boast noted there are real threats: for example, academics who teach on the politics of the Middle East being targeted by hate groups. This threat is of course likely to be amplified for people of colour. I still support lecture capture in this instance, but I want to apologise for erasing this very real risk in the post. I’ve left it there for accountability purposes, but this paragraph, and the following, represent my updated views. 

The risk of threat or harassment to academics is such that banning lecture capture would still be an inadequate solution, but we can use discussions around capture as an opportunity to demand better protection for staff. Even in a non-captured lecture, students could still film a teacher on their mobile device and then upload this to somewhere public such as YouTube with relative ease. (In fact this would be considerably easier than downloading and clipping a video, especially one which was made non-downloadable). Institutions should make clear to staff the protection available to them, as well as clarifying to students the penalties for practices such as this. Union caseworkers might well also be available to help, but at present it’s not clear what recourse staff have in instances of bullying by fellow staff or students, as opposed to management: more clarity on this would also be useful. 

“additional workload and time pressures”

This is precisely the point of lecture capture: lecturers don’t have to go to a special studio to record their lectures – the recording happens automatically in the normal course of teaching. The only additional workload is that involved in reviewing the capture (if you choose to), editing it (again, a choice – and the ability to edit surely bolsters the ‘freedom’ of the lecturer in this case) and linking to it from a VLE. This is a similar kind of work to uploading lecture slides: it’s not the most thrilling, but it’s a normal part of teaching. Unfortunately, we can’t all reduce our jobs only to the best bits, and if a hyperlink on Moodle is the most taxing aspect of your workload, I think most academics would be jealous. Workload is a problem for academics – I wrote about it here – but banning lecture capture wouldn’t come close to solving that problem.

“possible issues for disabled staff and students”

This one is opaque, and I think deliberately so: it seems to be playing the “disabled friend” card without linking to any voices of disabled staff or students. The only disabled opposition to lecture capture I’ve seen is someone with anxiety saying that lecture capture makes them anxious – and this is the most convincing opposition I’ve seen. I think the solution, though, is not to ban lecture capture – again, this privileges the lecturer’s needs over students’ – but to accommodate this particular staff member with teaching on non-lecture courses, or on guest lectures which don’t need to be captured. There may be staff teaching on courses who would like to review the lectures or may be unable to attend in person, for the same reasons that disabled students would be unable to attend or prefer to review recorded lectures. Recording as standard means that disabled staff, like disabled students, have a tiny bit less of the extra labour that goes into seeking individual accommodation.

“questions over pedagogic value”

This is necessarily quite vague: like the others, it sums up a session of conference discussion. We can’t reproduce the ‘questions’ raised at UCU Conference, so instead I’m going to introduce some more detail via this excellent and nuanced piece by Professor Charles Crook. Crook notes that “A live lecture cultivates students’ capacity for sustained attention to a narrative unfolding in real time, and also reinforces habits of prompt and effective note-taking”. He points out that recording lectures risks overemphasising their importance within the whole learning experience – especially as lectures become replayable while seminars aren’t – and that students may be encouraged into the unhelpful behaviour of endlessly replaying the lectures, memorising them and regurgitating them in assessments.

These are real risks, but the solution is not to ban lecture capture – unless you think that the mere risk of imperfect pedagogy is more important than the access of disabled students and staff. Rather, we can teach in ways that encourage students to attend lectures where possible, thinking about and responding to students as more than an audience. We can structure our courses so that lectures aren’t overemphasised (perhaps make your VLE more than a list of lecture recordings and PDFs of readings?). Importantly, we can (and should) design our assessments so that students are not rewarded for regurgitating the lecture content. These are all things we should be doing anyway, and if lecture capture makes them more urgent, so much the better.

“Use of recordings to monitor staff performance”

If only this were true. Staff in higher education are certainly monitored, but usually by much more demanding, and less useful, metrics than the quality of their lectures. Student evaluation scores are more usually seen as a proxy of staff performance in teaching, despite the fact that they are known to be an inadequate indicator of teaching quality (and vulnerable to bias in many ways, including gender). If performance were ‘monitored’ by watching the actual teaching this would be a substantial improvement. Sadly, this is also why it will never happen: observing someone teach is much less numerical, and more labour-intensive, than student evaluations. Not to mention the simple fact: if your boss wants to see you teach, then all he or she has to do is sit in on your teaching. Unless you’re currently teaching in a secret underground bunker, you’re already “vulnerable” to someone seeing you teach.

“the need for guidelines on intellectual property rights”

Absolutely right! We do need guidelines on staff intellectual property rights. We need clear intellectual property guidelines for all forms of content produced, though – not just recorded lectures. Banning lecture capture, or even making it opt-in, doesn’t obviate that need. In fact, making guidelines – in favour of staff – a condition of agreeing to lecture capture as standard could be a useful incentive to institutions to produce these guidelines, and in favour of staff. Not to mention – most academics take the risk of intellectual property theft every time they give a conference paper, publish a blog post or other work-in-progress, and even put teaching materials online for students. We know that the way to make theft less likely is to publicly associate the work with our name, so that should it be stolen, people would know it was ours. The same is true for lectures. Clandestine teaching will never be an adequate answer to intellectual property theft. This report from 2006 gives a useful summary of the issues, showing that many staff are poorly informed about their own institution’s policy on intellectual copyright and teaching materials. The answer: get informed, and potentially take steps to produce material outside of your job with non-University time and resources. Lecture capture doesn’t come into it.

“the right of the individual to opt out.”

This, right here, is institutional dis/ableism at work. This right places individual ‘freedom’ ahead of basic access to learning for students. There are things at my job I don’t have to do, but I can’t ‘opt out’ of basic duties such as answering emails, teaching classes and marking work – and I shouldn’t have the right to. That’s not the same as being able to negotiate your job: that’s perfectly OK. You should have the right to raise concerns about your workload or areas of work; if you’re asked to teach something you don’t feel you can, you should have the right to negotiate (though this isn’t always possible). What you shouldn’t have is the right to teach something in a way that’s potentially inaccessible to some of your students. I teach my classes on campus because that’s the most convenient way for me and for the majority of the people I teach. I don’t teach them at my parents’ house in rural Essex, because nobody else knows where it is or should make the effort to get there. It may be more ‘convenient’, or ‘preferred’ for me to teach somewhere inaccessible, but I teach in the way that’s most convenient to my students, in a place that they can access, because it is my job to do so.

All this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think critically about lecture capture, intellectual property and academic freedom. It certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine who is capturing our lectures, what companies are hired to do so, and what their interests are. Quite the opposite. We should do this because lecture capture is important to students, and so that we can make it serve them, and us, as best it can. We need to work through problems together, not use them as an excuse to ban lecture capture (and therefore ignore the problems).

Ultimately, banning lecture capture means using preference as an excuse to turn a blind eye to your students’ needs. If what you prefer is more important to you than your disabled students being able to access your teaching, that’s a choice you’ve made – but it’s a dis/ableist choice. Institutions: if your staff continually make dis/ableist choices, think again about your hiring practices. Your students deserve better.

 

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13 thoughts on “Opposing lecture capture is dis/ableist. Period.

  1. I objected strongly when I found that I had been recorded without my knowledge. I also raised a question when my lecture was being frequently attended by a student’s university-supplied note-taker but not the student. I made a point but let both go.

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    • The former is understandable (which is why I explicitly state that it shouldn’t happen). Sometimes note takers will attend without the student attending: usually whether that’s permitted will be arranged between disability services and the department’s disability liaison, as it depends on whether/how the disability should affect a student’s ability to attend. In my experience as a note-taker, where students didn’t attend the lecture we weren’t allowed to take notes in their absence *unless* specifically directed by disability services. Your student might have been in that situation.

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    • I agree with the points made here, but note one concern that isn’t addressed – most of my colleagues don’t lecture at an audience for an hour, we mix lecture, discussion, mini activities and student voices into the class. This has raised local concerns – how can we be sure students are ok with being recorded? What if it puts them off engaging – the fear of being recorded saying something incorrect might be a problem. Or do I as an academic have to take the responsibility of ensuring all student voices are edited out (that IS more work), even if that means missing some of the context for the listener?

      Would love to know what you think on this one…

      I have been voluntarily recording parts of lectures and recording extra spoken material (e g a description of an assignment to go along with a handout, for students who understand better by hearing) using a dictaphone for several years now, and have some idea of pluses and minuses (mostly pluses for the students which is great, some small minuses for me so far, which seems acceptable)

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      • Thanks for your comment, Jane, and you’re absolutely right – this is a concern that should be addressed! I’m impressed that this happens and it should be the norm. It’s something I will raise with technical colleagues – perhaps students commenting without the microphone, or having a separate (unrecorded) mic? Or alternatively an easy way to pause the recording if a student requests it? Your dictaphone solution sounds excellent, by the way!

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  2. Hi Emma – this is a really interesting blog post, as I have swung between the two sides of this for ages (especially, as others have pointed out on Twitter that someone decided it was a great idea to call lecture capture software ‘Panopto!’). I pretty much agree with you – and on other matters of tech and accessibility (such as the banning of laptops in class), I come down firmly on the side of allowing all kinds of tech, and especially of not forcing disabled students to make extra work for themselves by asking for exceptions/accomodations. Also no arguments from me that the academy is ableist, and we have a long way to go to improve that situation. In the same vein, yes, UCU can be ableist – I’m under no illusions that trade unions can’t be ableist, racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. It also seems to me that as you say, solutions to IP, workload etc. could be found without disadvantaging disabled students. And yes, I agree with you that we definitely shouldn’t have the ‘right to opt out’ of questions of accessibility!

    There are a couple of points I’m still not sure about though…

    “Trust me, guys. Your students are here to learn, not to get you into trouble: and your teaching isn’t nearly as ‘risky’ and ‘dangerous’ as you think it is. If you really think you run the risk of getting sued if what you teach gets out, you might want to rethink what you teach. Not least because – shock horror – your students might remember what you say (or even note something down) even if your lecture isn’t recorded. Kids, huh?”

    [For context, I’ve never done a lecture which just involves me talking from a prepared script – all my lectures involve interaction, contributions from the students, etc, so any lectures that would be recorded would also record a wide variety of student contributions. From the training I’ve received (and advice I’ve read), this is the way academics are encouraged to structure lectures nowadays, so I’m assuming this will apply to a lot of lectures that are recorded?]

    It seems fairly obvious to me that that lectures recorded for posterity and potentially played back DO run more of a risk of being seen, taken out of context, and either attracting the attention of university management, or a wider public, than notes taken by a student. An example that comes to mind (not of teaching, but of student participation), might be this video from the US, which was shared very widely online,taken completely out of context, and subjected to right-wing (often racist) abuse https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9SiRNibD14. This type of attention also fairly regularly happens to academic publications shared online (especially ones relating to issues of race, gender etc.), especially when it is taken up by the media and it does (in my opinion) have a particular impact on already marginalised academics. And that is usually in relation to publications and arguments that are very carefully thought-through; teaching by its very nature, can’t be that thought through – teachers are going to say things they regret later, and things that can be taken out of context. You may be right, in that there is a low risk of this happening, but it is not impossible (all it would take would be one student deciding to share the content). I do worry that if it does happen, it wouldn’t necessarily be to the kind of teaching you’re thinking about here – the kind that needs to be ‘rethought’. Many colleagues who teach feminist, anti-racist content, or especially content that is critical of their insitution, or HE in general (NSS, for example), already think carefully about what they put online, and I am concerned that having to be recorded in lectures would only increase this. I don’t think that outright opposition to lecture capture, is the answer, but to dismiss all worries about this as unfounded is not fair.

    I also, to be honest, don’t really trust the management of institutions not to use recorded lectures in disciplinary proceedings, monitoring staff performance in an unfair way, etc., etc, and I think it’s OK for unions not to trust them either. After all, that is what unions are there for. All it would take is for an institution looking for an excuse not to renew someone’s casual contract, and they would be able to look through recordings to find evidence of an ‘off day’ in teaching. I feel like this is significantly different to other forms of peer review you mention in the article, and may also inadvertently impact more negatively on disabled academics? I don’t really know what the solution is to this in terms of accessibility, but I think that it should probably play a part in any discussion (both for disabled staff and students) on the subject.

    Anyway, lots of food for thought in the blog post – thank you for writing it.

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    • Hi Alice,

      Apologies for the late approval and reply – for some reason WordPress had marked your comment as spam! It doesn’t seem spammy at all to me, so I don’t know why.

      You’re absolutely right that I was being unfair – I hadn’t thought about the risk of staff being subjected to doxxing and harassment as a result of their political beliefs. I put in a section in the blog explaining and modifying my position – and I want here to credit Dr Hannah Boast, who rightly drew my attention to the current visibility of Israel/Palestine issues in the US ‘tenure wars’. I do, however, think that this risk is too important to leave to lecture capture debates: staff who don’t use lecture capture are still at risk of being recorded and made public, so they deserve protection beyond just not being captured. I’m sure you’d agree on that.

      Re: your last paragraph – I would genuinely be interested to see whether lecture capture has been used in disciplinary proceedings? I haven’t seen any and haven’t been able to envisage a situation where they are used, but I would be prepared to listen to evidence to the contrary. I honestly think the pernicious monitoring of staff is focused more on the use of student evaluations and research ‘outputs’, and I definitely think we (and UCU) should challenge them on that.

      Anyway, thanks so much for your comment – lots of food for thought here too, and thanks for helping me rethink one of my more dismissive positions – I have a lot of privilege in that (generally) I don’t face this kind of harassment for my writing, and I need to remember that this isn’t the case for everyone.

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  3. If the important reason for introducing lecture recordings is to support students with disabilities why don’t universities record lectures and then email the links to disabled students (and students who make a formal request)? Any evidence of this being a proposal, or evidence of resistance to such a proposal. Or perhaps any evidence of a lecturer refusing a student the right to audio record a lecture? If not, and I am assuming not, then the issue is not about disabled students, the issue is about who decides what happens in the lecture theatres. People in ‘Education Development Teams’ or the academics who teach students and do research.

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    • Hi Nell, Many thanks for your comment.

      As I noted in the blog post, constantly having to request accommodations is an additional drain on the already limited resources/energy of disabled students. Most universities do have such a policy in place already, or one of allowing disabled students to record on their own devices.

      In response to your second point – fortunately (unfortunately for some) academics and those who teach in HE don’t operate in a vacuum. It’s illegal for universities to refuse disabled students the accommodation they need. Ultimately universities need to be run with an eye to what works best for students as well as staff, and surely this should include disabled students. Educational development teams, e-learning teams and all those other teams who seem ‘pointless’ are actually here to help, and a valuable source of expertise – that’s why institutions maintain them.

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  4. JamesB raises the issue of student voices being recorded during the more active types of teaching session that we know are more effective than didactic lectures. Aside from the technical difficulty of recording student voices at sufficient quality/volume to make them audible, is there any reason why those student voices shouldn’t be part of the recording, providing everyone knows that the recording is being made? Aren’t those discussions an important part of the learning process – even (and perhaps especially) where a student’s comment reveals a misconception (probably shared by many of their peers) that the tutor and fellow students can then explore and clarify?
    To some extent I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but I’d argue that University is a place where we ought to develop our students’ ability to have the confidence to put forward their own views in a public debate, or ask what might initially seem obvious questions as a way to check their understanding? And how can they do that without practice and the risk that entails?

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    • I agree that students should be made aware, but I do also think we should be aware that some students may not want to be recorded for reasons that don’t have to do with ability: they may be avoiding abusive partners or family, for example (more common than you’d think), or they may just be developing that confidence. We may want to develop students’ confidence, but that means acknowledging that they don’t come to university already possessing that skill, and that ‘we want you to be able to do this’ is not a good reason for excluding those who can’t. We need to have learning spaces that include these students.

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  5. Pingback: Lecture Capture at Warwick | fragments of amber

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