Climbing The Online Learning Curve I: From lecture to video

Published on March 15, 2022

Peter Coffman

When the university where I work (Carleton) announced its Winter 2022 schedule last November, there was an immediate outcry against the number of courses that were scheduled to remain online. This was especially evident on social media, where “online learning sucks” became a rallying cry and a hashtag. “Students demand in-person learning”, we were told. “Pre-recorded lectures are horrible.” “Students are being ripped off.” A virtual consensus seemed to emerge that online learning was a complete, irredeemable flop.

My own experience with online courses has been more nuanced. Two years ago, I (like everyone else) found myself at the very bottom of an incredibly steep learning curve. After twenty-four relentless months of (mostly) online teaching, I am nowhere near the top of that curve. But I’m far enough along that I’ve begun to see some genuine advantages to online learning. In short: online learning has forced me to re-think what a ‘lecture’ is and could be. That re-think not only improved my online courses, but will make me a more effective teacher long after the pandemic is over.

I realize that online learning is no panacea. Going to university is about far more than simply receiving information. Interactions with instructors, TAs, and peers – formal and informal, planned and spontaneous – are an indispensable part of education. A classroom is a place for dialogue, discussion and debate, not just a data-dump. Anyone who has taught a university seminar on Zoom has experienced the torment of gathering weekly with a group of black rectangles and trying to deal with time lag, chat boxes, unstable internet and the complete absence of body language. Unless someone can show me the key to some hitherto unknown door, I will concede that in courses of this type, online learning can never be more than a last resort.

But many of the courses I teach in first and second year are not discussion-based. They are broad introductions to a topic, taught to large groups in a dark auditorium. I make a point of tossing out questions to the class, but interactions are necessarily limited by the size of the class and the size of the room (only the instructor has a microphone). The primary function of these courses is to introduce concepts, stimulate questioning, and provide a baseline of knowledge for discussions that can’t happen in that classroom. It is in these lecture-based courses that online learning can really perform well – and maybe even raise the bar above what we can achieve in the auditorium.

What the pandemic forced me to do was re-think what a ‘lecture’ was and could be. I had rarely given the question much thought; after four degrees and years of teaching, the thing seemed self-evident to me. That, of course, changed very abruptly on Friday, March 13, 2020. My next lecture was scheduled for the following Wednesday; the only thing I knew for sure was that it wasn’t going to be like anything I’d previously seen or done.

First epiphany: I wasn’t giving lectures any more, I was making videos. They are different media, and require different approaches. Merely sticking a camera in front of me while I lectured was not going to give students an engaging online experience, any more than sticking a camera in front of a stage play results in a great movie.

Fortunately, because I teach architectural history, my lectures have always been very reliant on visual content. I say ‘fortunately’, because on-screen delivery makes the need to show as well as tell even more than usually pressing. So, step one of re-thinking the lecture was to understand it as a form of visual communication, as well as verbal. For me, that means illustrating not just objects that I discuss, but also ideas. That’s not the work of a moment, but if you have ten minutes to spare, you can view one of my attempts in an actual lecture excerpt from my first-year survey here. The course is Architecture from Prehistory to 1500; the lecture is on Vitruvian and Classical principles of beauty, and how they apply to architecture. It’s an example of a deliberate effort to make the video lecture as visual a medium as possible. To be clear: it’s just an undergraduate lecture; it’s not going to win any academy awards. But whatever its shortcomings, there’s no reason to think they’d be overcome by performing this live in a lecture hall rather than online.

The student response to the online lectures in this course was overwhelmingly positive. Not only did they report that they learned effectively (and their grades backed this up); they liked the fact that they could work lecture ‘attendance’ around other deadlines, easily review sections they didn’t immediately understand, and not have to miss lectures due to illness, schedule conflicts or other limitations to availability.

So, the online video was a success. Yes, it was an insane amount of work each week, but from a pedagogical point of view, it worked. But that was just the first step of meeting the challenge of online teaching. Whenever we’re faced with a new technology, our first reaction is usually to do with it what we did with old technology. The next question was, since I am entirely online, what can I do that I couldn’t do before? Can I make online delivery an opportunity, rather than simply an obstacle to overcome?

That will be the subject of Part 2 of this blog.

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