Scandals are on the horizon. Many of us poured effort into recorded lectures during the year of the pandemic, and as those courses reappear in our teaching rotations, we’ll be tempted to just upload the same lectures over again. Horrifying, right? Well, maybe not. I’m not (yet) sure.
I’ll face this dilemma soon for my Fall 2021 courses. Since we have great hope but not yet certainty that the pandemic will be behind us, some courses at my university will still be online. I’ve indicated that mine would be good choices to be online – after all, they worked pretty well last year. I’ve come to realize that there many advantages to online mostly-asynchronous formats, and that many – perhaps most – of the pronouncements of the Death Of Postsecondary Education As We Know ItTM are just self-fulfilling prophecies from people who have a hard time with change.*
So, when my online Entomology course rolls around again, do I just upload my old lectures again, or should I re-record them all? I know that if I do the former, I’ll be accused of phoning it in. Those accusations might come from my students, although I think they’re more likely to come from my students’ parents, from the media if someone phones in a hot tip, and quite possibly from some of my colleagues. (If it weren’t for the fact that I’ll have synchronous sessions as well, perhaps my students would wonder if I’m dead.) But if I re-record instead, I’ll have a hard time escaping the conclusion that I’m doing a whole enormous pile of work for little, if any, benefit.
Here’s the thing that online teaching has made clear: a lecture** is two things. It’s content (the information presented), and it’s presentation (the delivery of the lecture, including the exact words and graphics used to convey the content). Reusing content is uncontroversial: nobody thinks that a course needs to be (or should be) reinvented from the ground up every year. (That’s not to endorse a course that never changes, of course; let’s hope everyone here is capable of the nuanced thinking involved in recognizing the difference.) Does reusing the performance seem lazy and unprofessional? Yeah, I can’t help thinking that too. But here are a few reasons why my intuitive reaction is probably mistaken.
- Of the two, surely course content is where the intellectual substance lies. That’s not to suggest that performance is unimportant – we’ve all suffered through awful lectures by instructors who didn’t care about that part of it. But it’s bizarre that we should worry more about recycled performance than about recycled content.
- Nobody objects to re-using a textbook. In fact, when a textbook publisher updates performance without much change to content – by publishing a new but barely-different edition, intended only to squash the used-copy market – we get very upset. (This would be a good place to remind you that that’s NOT what the 2nd edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing is for!) What makes a (recorded) lecture different?
- If recorded lectures can be reused, we can make them a lot better. Teaching effort is a limited commodity, and if each recorded lecture is disposable, to be used once and replaced at the next course offering, an instructor can’t afford to do the best possible job. Imagine instead that I could spend four times as long making each performance exquisite, with the tradeoff of refreshing each only every four years. Surely this would be a pedagogical gain?
- We don’t object to reusing performances in other media. I’m listening to recorded music as I write this, and the fact that I’ve listened to Taylor Swift’s Evermore before doesn’t make me think I should ask her to re-record it for me this time. I’ve watched every episode of M*A*S*H repeatedly, as I have Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and as I’m likely to with Schitt’s Creek. Sure, live music and live theatre are rewarding – but they’re a minor fraction of the way most of us consume that kind of content, in part because recorded performances can be of extremely high quality.
There’s one more reason to believe my intuition is wrong. While most of us were launched suddenly and involuntarily into online teaching as the pandemic spread, a year ago, we all have colleagues who are expert, professional online educators. You may or may not know a lot about their courses – a lot of folks don’t – but I can tell you that many of their online courses are superb. And those experts don’t rerecord all their content for each new offering.
I could go on. I can make arguments for reposting my old lecture recordings (sorry, performances) that absolutely convince the rational part of my brain. Problem is, the rational part of my brain isn’t alone in my skull. The (shall we say) less rational part of my brain insists it would be lazy and unprofessional, and while that part of my brain may not be rational, it’s pretty loud.
What do you think? If you’re in the same situation, what do you plan to do? If you’re a student, or a student’s parent, just how scandalized would you be?
© Stephen Heard April 20, 2021
Image: a still from my Entomology lecture on the Order Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies).
*^Lest that sound too accusatory, I should point out that I am one of those people who has a hard time with change. Which is why it took a pandemic to push me into doing some things in my teaching that I should have done long ago.
**^I’ll use the term loosely. Much of what’s done in a good lecture isn’t lecturing; and lecturing done well is a form of active learning, not its opposite