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12:55pm on Saturday, 5th October, 2013:

Listen Again


All lectures at Essex University are recorded automatically. The recorded material goes into a system called "listen again". Students who miss the lecture (or presumably students present at the lecture who later want to sue the university for something that went on it it), can listen to a recording of it after the event.

It's quite a popular service for the students, being used around 100,000 times last year. The university is keen to extend it, so that the wider world can hear how great our lectures are and people will flock from far and wide to attend them. This means that lecturers now get a choice over who can hear their lectures.

The options are:

  1. The whole world.
  2. The University staff and students.
  3. Students from that particular module only.
  4. Only students who have support needs who are on that particular module.
  5. Only the lecturer.
  6. No recording is made.

The default is that only the lecturer can hear the recordings of their lectures. Surely, though, most lecturers will want to extend who can listen again in order to attract more students in subsequent years?

Well, no. Most of my colleagues with whom I've discussed this don't really want anyone listening again to their lectures.

One complaint they have is that "listen again" in many cases means "listen for the first time", in that students are more inclined to skip lectures if they know they can hear the content at their leisure. Listening to a lecture is no substitute for attending it, though, no matter how much students wish it were; it's like listening to a radio broadcast of a theatrical production. Some lectures are recorded with video, too, but even this isn't quite the same: there can be no interaction with the students, no eye contact, no sense of how the lecture is going, if the students aren't present.

Another complaint is that it's not just the lecturers being recorded, it's the students, too. If the lecturer asks a question and a student earnestly replies with a comically wrong answer, that student can expect a clip of their answer to be on Facebook within an hour. This makes students even less inclined to answer questions than they are already. In the past, I myself have had to put my hand over the microphone in order to persuade students it's OK to hazard a guess at an answer to a question I've put to them.

A third complaint is that it's easy for someone listening to a lecture out of context to find something to be offended by in it. It's sometimes the case that to keep students engaged, or to help their understanding, or to make them think, a lecturer may make a provocative or borderline statement. This is a judgement call by the lecturer. If the lecturer reads their audience correctly, then it can be very effective; the problem occurs when the lecturer reads their audience correctly but someone not present listens to it and takes affront. For example, I don't think enough girls study Computer Science in general and Computer Games in particular. In order to make this point, sometimes I'll say something along the lines of: "it's odd how in the Psychology Department, which is right next door to our department, around four in five of their students are, hmm, what's that word again — ah! Female!". This usually goes down well, because my students are also well aware of how few women there are among them and wish we had more. Someone listening to what I said without that sense of our collective plight could easily interpret it as a disparaging remark about female students and use it as evidence that we don't want them. This means it's hard to make what is intended as a pro-women-in-games remark, as someone listening to it again could decide to interpret it as anti-women-in-games (or indeed anti-women-in-general). The same applies to any remark that relies on irony, bitterness or a subtle cultural detail for its effect.

A fourth complaint is that reproducing raw lectures for the rest of the world to listen to could make us look worse, rather than better. Alongside Massive Open Online Courses that are produced to scripts, with professional quality video, we give the appearance of being amateurs. Even a moderately-seasoned podcaster's output would make our audio sound rubbish in comparison. You need editing and post-production to impress a global audience, not as-is live recordings that are interrupted by students walking in after 20 minutes then sitting down and opening a packet of crisps.

I also suspect that a lot of my colleagues don't like the idea of their lectures' being broadcast because they never think they've given a good lecture. Some of them may be right, too.

I haven't decided what option to go with myself yet. I'm thinking maybe 4, with perhaps a change to 3 come revision time. 6 does look so tempting, though...

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Copyright © 2013 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).