The Higher Educationalist

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:

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.