Point/Counterpoint: Stop The Tape?

Two editors debate the videotaping of lectures

Point: Videotaping empty rooms

Before endorsing Harvard’s recent practice of videotaping lectures for online use, we must consider its effect on our pedagogical mission. Many see this as simply a convenience, one among many that modern technology affords us. They assume having access to lectures could only be helpful in the overall goal of education. In practical reality, though, lecture videos hurt students and the college as a whole.

The main problem with recording lectures is that it encourages students to skip class. Missing an hour of instruction here and there is not uncommon, but it is not something that should be countenanced. Once reproduced, students become far more willing to sleep through a given lecture—or to forgo course attendance entirely. Some students even use the online availability of these videos to determine their schedule. Many professors who teach in rooms with the capacity to record lectures choose not to do so for this very reason.

That attendance in class is desirable seems self-evident, and the (sometimes subtle) benefits it provides are many. Professors naturally prefer an audience to their presentation, whose questions can guide discussion and instruction. Even seeing the way students react to information can inform how much time a professor spends on particular topics in the future. Attendance allows for a general assurance that our lecturers’ knowledge—for which we have competed and pay a premium—is being passed on. Furthermore, one of the great benefits of a school like Harvard is the quality of the minds it gathers together in a community. Isolating students from each other and faculty serves to stifle all sorts of constructive academic interaction. Harvard Extension School offers lectures online; we come to Harvard College for a different, richer experience.

In general, the potential costs of taking lecture out of the lecture-hall outweigh its simple convenience. However, perhaps recording makes sense under limited and structured circumstances. For example, emergency absences from class are to be expected, and recordings could help these students catch up on missed material. If, however, it is a privilege to be at this college, why choose to dilute or cheapen that experience?

Nathaniel C. Donoghue ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a classics concentrator in Lowell House.

Counterpoint: And we’re rolling

On Tuesday, I awoke at 1:28 p.m. Like many Harvard students, my class attendance is a bit spotty. And not only for lack of sleep: perhaps we need to study for a midterm, or we have a religious obligation, or we are sick, or we are just hungry and lunch doesn’t fit our schedule, or we are hungry and then we get sick from eating HUDS lunch. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Harvard students often need to dodge the classroom (and when students do go to lecture it’s probably to sleep, Facebook, or Gchat anyway).

Thanks to modern technologies like online lecture videos and lecture slides, we still manage to get by (though I’m not sure posting these videos online can still even be considered “modern”; Chem 5 lectures were being uploaded in 1998). Yet, fast-forward 10 years, and lecture videotaping is a highly underutilized teaching tool. Most large Harvard classrooms are fully equipped to videotape lectures, a service provided seamlessly at faculty request. Still, many professors choose not to opt in, often arguing that online lecture videos incentivize lower class attendance and abstractly decrease overall learning. But anyone who has sat through a large lecture here knows that “class participation” is usually left to that one kid in the front row who likes to point out typos on the lecture slides.

When has it become a professor’s prerogative to limit our avenues of learning? Forcing students to attend lecture when they would rather watch an easily provided video is seemingly an acknowledgment that in-person lectures are not compelling enough to merit their own attendance—the video is a valid substitute.

The willful withholding of this opt-in teaching tool is paternalistic, and reflects an inaccurate conception of reality on the part of professors. For some students, watching lectures online at their leisure when they are not tired, sick, or hungry—coupled with the ability to pause and rewind a video—could actually aid in learning.

Lecture videotaping needs to be expanded. At only modest effort and cost, lecture videos provide students a valuable study tool and an additional avenue of learning. Professors need to stop venerating class attendance and start thinking pragmatically.

James M. Wilsterman ’10, a Crimson editorial executive, is an economics concentrator in Lowell House.


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