Is it a good idea to record lectures?

In his anti-lecture lecture, Donald Clark makes some well-known arguments about the weaknesses of the lecture format. They encourage passivity; they’re too long; they’re frequently delivered by introverts who have more expertise in research than spoken communication. It’s an interesting talk, and I’d encourage you to have a listen. Here though, I’m going to focus on another thing he says: if you’re going to lecture, then you should record it so that students can listen back. Clark outlines some of the supporting research for this view in a blog post. The main benefit is that it allows students to hear the lecture multiple times: “Repeated, spaced practice is essential for real learning, deep processing, elaboration and therefore recall.” Additionally, students who didn’t understand part of the lecture can refer back to the recording and go over it again. This could be especially useful for international students, who may be struggling with some of the language in their lectures.

I talked about recording (audio or video) lectures with a couple of people at my college. They were behind the idea in principle, but had a couple of hesitations which to me sound quite reasonable.

1. Constant recording is akin to constant observation

Formative observations are good. The feedback afterwards is personalised, and you usually learn something about your classroom that you wouldn’t notice otherwise. Sometimes teachers don’t like observations because they implicitly involve judgment of your professional ability, but most of the time we just suck it up and get the observation over with already.

The trouble is, teachers might be wary of observations (and therefore judgment) occuring without their knowledge. This is a real possibility if lectures are being recorded and stuck on the college website / VLE. This could be framed as a privacy issue, analogous to the discomfort some people feel with the intrusions of CCTV. Lecture theatres aren’t private spaces, but the prospect of being watched by unknowns is not something every lecturer is ready to get excited about.

2. Recording lectures might affect attendance

It’s common practice at our college to put the PowerPoint slides of lectures up on the VLE. This makes sense, as it allows students to prepare for lectures and review some of the content afterwards. PowerPoints don’t make much sense on their own, and reading one is a poor substitute for actually attending the lecture. But what if the lecture was recorded and posted online? Then you could skip class and watch the lecture in bed. This is the principle of distance education, and it works well for some. There are, however, a number of reasons why this would be a bad thing at our college.

Let’s get the dull one out of the way first: international students are obligated by the terms of their visas to attend a minimum of 80% of their lessons. If by providing recorded lectures, we inadvertently encourage poor attendance, we might end up putting the students’ visas in jeopardy. Second, well attended lectures have a different buzz to them compared to a lecture with ten people and a digirecorder. Any musician will attest that the presence and size of an audience has a profound effect on performances, and lectures are the same. Third, lectures are easily misunderstood as one-way content delivery vehicles. Students and educators can both suffer this illusion, neglecting the fact that most lecturers respond to their audience, answering and asking questions, and gauging the comprehension and interest levels within the room. This interaction is difficult to replicate when students aren’t in the room. Here’s Tara Brabazon in Digital Hemlock making a related point in more colouful language:

“To over-emphasise web-based learning removes the sensual, textured, weathered surfaces of popular culture. We lose the taste, smell and texture of texts, and the roughened, grainy skin of life […] The enthusiasm and excitement of the classroom disrupts lives, promoting ruthless debates between partners, friends and parents. It should be exciting, distracting and highly inopportune. I have never – in my life – seen a fervent, agitated, angry, volatile involvement with PowerPoint slides. Play Barry Manilow in a lecture theatre: watch the difference.”

While I don’t think we need to do anything as drastic as playing Barry Manilow to show the difference between recorded lectures and the real thing, the danger is that our bed-bound student may well downplay this difference.


On the whole, I’m on the side of Donald Clark on this one. The two problems I identify here are real, but not insurmountable. The key issue is whether the lecturer is happy about being recorded. In every instance, they should have the right to veto, and I would be against lectures being recorded as a matter of policy. One compromise most lecturers would probably be happy with is the idea that the students record the lectures themselves; on their phones for example. This gets around the feeling that your managers and peers might listen in, and neatly sidesteps the attendance problem.

Image credit

Sony voice recorder by Stilfehler


3 thoughts on “Is it a good idea to record lectures?

  1. Thanks for this, Nick. The sheer number of hours that students are spending in traditional lectures right now is staggering, and equally staggering is the number of them that are NOT LEARNING right now because of the shortcomings of that modality.

    I like your comments about the power of attendance for the efficacy of the lecture. I think this is accurate. We could be wiser about the role that we give to lectures in education if we get a bit more critical about when and where they would be useful, rather than considering them the default and mindlessly shuffling masses of students through them.

  2. Thanks for this Nick. I watched the Donald Clark anti-lecture lecture. Persuasive stuff. Recording lectures and the flipped classroom are two sides of the same coin no? And if we are going to record lectures as the ‘information dump’ bit of teaching, then I see no reason why the lecturer should be filmed at all. Record good quality audio and team it up with some effective visuals. There’s little (nothing?) to be gained from watching a person stand behind a podium talking to a different audience to the one in which you are a part. This also, to some extent, may allay some justifiable concerns on the part of the lecturer.

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