The 2021 academic year at Stellenbosch University will start in the middle of March. In the current planned teaching model, students will watch recorded videos beforehand and then have a live (online) session where they can ask questions. Since we switched to online teaching halfway through the first semester of 2020, I still need to create videos for the first part of my course. Although I enjoy creating videos, it is quite a job. As we are going into this new year, a question that has bothered me throughout 2020 has come up again:
Assume there is a well-developed set of course videos developed by an experienced lecturer from a top university (e.g. Stanford), and assume these videos are available for free on YouTube (no copyright issues). Why should I still make videos for the course that I am teaching at Stellenbosch?
I put this question to other lecturers, students and friends. I summarise some of my favourite responses in this post.
Context and framing the question
First a bit of context. I am teaching an introductory machine learning course to final-year undergraduate students in electrical and electronic engineering. A screenshot of an existing lecture is shown below. It isn’t a rule that lecturers should make videos from scratch, but it is generally expected by students (and colleagues).
This post isn’t about how we should use videos as part of a curriculum in the “new normal” post-pandemic world, or how teaching in general should change in the future—although these are important questions. It is specifically about the purpose behind recorded videos in our current online teaching model.
I also want to know specifically: What is best for the students? So the fact that the faculty could require me to make videos and that it is seen as part of my job won’t be considered (although these might actually be good enough reasons in themselves). How does me making lecture videos benefit the students?
Finally a disclosure: I am writing this mainly to motivate myself to make the rest of the videos for my course.
A screenshot from one of my existing lecture videos.
Three goals of teaching
Before getting into the reasons for making lecture videos, let’s ask: What do we want from a class in general? What is the goal of teaching, even in a non-pandemic world? Steven Brunton, one of my favourite online educators, gives three main goals for teaching:
Get students excited. Without being excited, students won’t be motivated to engage with the content.
Give students the lay of the land. A big struggle when confronted with a new study area is to get the bigger picture, knowing how topics fit together. Without going into full depth on every single topic, you want to give students a high-level map of the field.
Teach them how to build up their own knowledge. Equipped with the lay of the land, students need to be able to build up the details as it becomes relevant to the problems they are facing. A lecturer can teach this by example, showing students how and where to find the relevant material and how to process it.
Why should I make lecture videos?
Given these three goals for teaching, why should I make lecture videos? I summarise the responses I got below, trying to link them loosely to the teaching goals. Spoiler: The responses convinced me that, although all three goals can be accomplished using an existing set of well-developed YouTube videos, producing your own videos can be one of the most effective ways to accomplish these goals when you are offering a class online.
Don’t make your own videos. Probably a bad first point, but it is a response I got several times and one I actually agree with: If the perfect lectures are already on YouTube, it’s a waste not to use them. But I think it is really rare to find the “perfect lectures,” especially a set covering your whole course exactly. So, given the points below, I would advocate an approach where, if you find an existing video explaining a concept well, you use it as part of your (curated) curriculum.
Pilates, investments and approachability. I normally attend a pilates class. During lockdown, our in-person pilates classes obviously didn’t take place. So our instructor sent out weekly videos for members that still paid their fees. And I diligently did my pilates classes every week. Although there are maybe higher-quality pilates videos on YouTube by more experienced instructors, I specifically watched these videos. Why? One reason is simply that I paid for the class, and there was a perception that these videos were made for me. I paid for the pilates class and the instructor put in effort, so I will put in effort. For my course, the students paid to be there; if I put in effort with the videos, could this help them learn better? As put in this guide from Vanderbilt, you should ensure that “the material feels like it is for these students in this class.” And if the face the students see in the course videos is the same as the one they see in the question class, won’t this make it easier to ask questions?1
Sharing your unique view. Every lecturer has a unique view of a study area. No two lecturers will teach the same content in exactly the same way. To capture this unique view is valuable in itself. But more importantly, the way you answer questions (via email, in an online question class, on forums) will be strongly influenced by your view. If you didn’t make the lecture videos, you will have to answer questions from the YouTube videos’ perspective rather than your own, or re-explain the work from your own view (making the videos obsolete). The things that excite you, the way you see the lay of the land, and the way you build up knowledge will also be different from every other expert—your own videos can be an easy way to impart this to your class.
Meet students where they are at. I am privileged to teach at the university where I did my undergraduate studies. So I have a good idea of the curriculum and where the students are at when they “walk” into my class. I can tailor my course to try to match the students’ point of view, which is important for laying the land and helping them learn to learn.2
I need to know the work. Making videos can be a way for me to make the work my own. To accomplish the three goals of teaching a lecturer needs to be very familiar with the content (or able to show students where to find answers). There is a danger in just using content from others (even if it is good): It could make the work seem simple. You might not even pause to anticipate potential issues you yourself might have with the material. Making videos (or even just extra notes, creating any type of “artefact” while preparing for lectures), is probably one of the best ways to master the material yourself.
Side comments. This was mentioned by a student: Sometimes in a video, the lecturer drops a side comment which then “just makes the rest click”. It is often a more intuitive comment to contextualise the content. It could be something too informal for a textbook or accompanying notes, or could even be an opinionated statement reflecting the lecturer’s personal view. I think this could happen a lot more in live lectures, but is still something that happens in recorded videos. (I should admit I love a good rant, but it’s not something I can do to the same degree in a video recording.)
In conclusion: Make videos but also don’t over-value them
The above goals can all be accomplished without making the perfect videos. Students will also probably learn a lot more by doing (e.g. in a tutorial or practical) than from digesting the content in my (amazing) videos. Moreover, a lot of the above reasons for making videos isn’t actually about the content—even the three teaching goals say very little about a lecturer’s obligation to create content. Rather, lecture videos are a means to a different end, and the same end can probably be accomplished in other ways (e.g. through good additional notes, summaries or well-developed practicals).
I tried to focus this post to the current fully online teaching model. But I think it raises even bigger questions for the post-pandemic future. What is the benefit of in-person lectures, tutorials and practicals? Should we be teaching in person at all? How should I use online content—from others and my own videos—within a more traditional class-based curriculum? How do we as lecturers build skills as curators rather than content creators?