Once the preserve of the Open University, online lectures have become a permanent feature of teaching Politics and International Relations. For many academics, the idea of delivering lectures online may set alarm bells ringing. Are online lectures not just another step in the casualization and commercialisation of higher education? It is not the aim of this blog entry to marginalise these concerns about the underlying forces that are perceived, by some, to have driven the turn toward online lectures throughout the UK higher education sector. Rather, it provides practical advice- based on my personal experience and conversations with colleagues- on delivering online lectures. Below I identify three problems which every new online lecturer will likely face, and propose some ways to manage and alleviate these.
1) Online lectures increase your workload – certainly in the short term, but it is possible to save time in the long run
Online lectures will probably be more time-consuming to prepare. Lectures which are recorded cannot include spontaneous questions and discussions. For this reason, it is important to prepare enough lecture content to fill the entire hour. You should prepare in such a way that the lecture content can be presented fluently and without any confusing, or unneeded, interruptions. This means, from my experience, that lectures have to be pre-written as more or less finished texts which can be read out.
Variations and additions to the pre-written lecture are certainly possible during the actual recording, but it is important to have short, focused sentences that can be read out slowly where things get more complex. Even if a presentation is recorded in short pieces, slide by slide, it might take several attempts to get a slide ‘right’, which means that the recording process is longer than the actual lecture time. From my experience, there is no way around this.
Following on from this, it makes sense to use a large number of presentation slides with shorter texts, even if this means re-thinking your style of lecturing. Short pieces of information are easier to record – and to re-record in case of a serious mistake. Shorter, more focused slides also make it easier to remove and add specific pieces of information when a lecture is re-used for several years.
Spending some time practicing reading speed, intonation, breathing and pausing will also be helpful in transforming speech for a live audience into something that works when listened to without mimics and gestures – and ultimately reduce the amount of attempts it takes to produce a high-quality recording. Especially in the beginning it is tempting to try and perfect recordings. I would recommend not starting again because of every stumble, pause or slight correction – as long as it is still clear what is said, small mistakes are not an issue for the students listening and might even make for a more engaging listening experience.
The central advantage of online lectures, which does make it possible for the lecturer to save time, is that they can be reused. This might be easier for areas which rely less on current political events and developments like political thought. But even for fast changing subjects, slides on theoretical frameworks and concepts could be used for several years.
2) Online lectures are tedious – but there are a number of media and interactive elements to make them more interesting
Online lectures are arguably less interesting for students to watch. Without a lecturer physically present, students may be left with a dry, recorded text and static presentation slides.
If listened to on an electronic device, online lectures leave students with ample opportunities to be distracted. While this certainly does not make for ideal learning conditions, I believe that it is important to keep in mind that online lectures are, for some, a genuine – they allow students who have family or work commitments to receive lecture content specifically designed for the purpose of distance learning, and not just the recording of a lecture written for a live audience. If for nothing else, it is for this reason that online lectures require thought in they are prepared and delivered.
Because slides are the only visual stimuli the students have, it is important to make sure that they are as clear and interesting as possible. It is vital to create clear and visually interesting slides which leave enough room for pictures, graphs and tables.
While I do not have sound advice on mastering the skill of making pre-recorded jokes, I think that integrating some light elements like comics, news or video clips (for political thought I personally like the 8-bit philosophy from critical-theory.com) improve the flow of the lecture. Task slides which don’t provide information, but ask students to guess the author of a quote, brainstorm their associations with a picture or fill in a blank can have the same effect – here, programmes like Office Mix offer a number of useful interactive elements such as quizzes and free response questions. They enable active student participation in the lecture and, in the absence of audience feedback, provide a tool for checking whether students have understood the content of the lecture.
3) Online lectures incentivise problematic student habits – for this reason it is necessary to situate them carefully in the module context
Perhaps the most surprising challenge I have encountered in my online delivery of lectures is how the medium shapes the learning experience. The obvious assumption would be that students do not watch the online lectures. From my experience however, this is neither the biggest problem, nor one that is specific to online lectures. Rather, it seems that students who are not used to live lectures have a tendency to think that they need to note down and memorise the entire lecture. They view the lecture not as a presentation highlighting important frameworks, ideas, and empirical evidence which can then be taken further in independent study, but as a ‘rosetta stone’ to transcribe, memorise and repeat. Talking to students I found that many of them spend 3 or 4 hours on one lecture, increasing not only their stress level but also their workload.
I think that this challenge can be contained by carefully integrating the online lecture into the context of a module and manage the students’ expectations of the lecture – and of themselves. If you lecture online, it is important to use seminars and other face-to-face teaching elements to carefully explain what may otherwise seem obvious – that the online lecture should be treated the same as any another form of lecture. For students who have no experience with lectures, it is important to remember that this is not necessarily self-evident. From my experience, there is otherwise a risk that online lectures lead students to – often unsuccessfully – memorise a topic in its detailed breath rather than selectively abstract from the presented context to recognise and use links, tension and causal relations.
In conclusion then, I believe that the use of online lectures presents both challenges and opportunities for postgraduates who teach. As I have discussed, online lectures offer at least some possibilities to save time, design and deliver interesting lectures that students, from a distance, can engage with. What is key, is preparing for them accordingly.
Hannah Richter is a Lecturer in Politics & International Relations at the University of Hertfordshire as well as a PhD Candidate in Political and Social Thought at the University of Kent. She is working on post-structuralist philosophy, biopolitics and the constructivist systems theory of Niklas Luhmann.