DENVER — If professors record their lectures and put them online, will students still come to class?
That question came up in two different sessions at the 2009 Educause Conference here on Friday. And in both cases, the panelists cited research indicating that students’ likelihood of skipping class has no correlation with whether a professor decides to capture her lecture and post it the Web.
Attendance is much more contingent on whether the professor is an engaging lecturer, said Jennifer Stringer, director of educational technology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, at one of the sessions . “Well-attended lectures were well-watched; poorly attended lectures were not watched,” Stringer said, pointing to research she had conducted at Stanford. "If you’re bad, you’re bad. If you’re bad online, you’re bad in lectures, students don’t come.”
“Our students at Berkeley tell us that this is supplemental material, and it doesn’t affect their decision to attend class,” said Mara Hancock, director for educational technologies at the University of California at Berkeley, of her own research into the matter.
The technology known as “lecture capture,” which is offered in many forms by more than a dozen vendors, has been getting more and more attention in higher education as the software becomes more sophisticated and studies suggesting it could boost retention and performance continue piling up.
In 2008, 78 percent of undergraduate respondents to a University of Wisconsin at Madison study  said they think having lectures available online would help them retain lesson material, and 76 percent said they believed it would help them improve their test scores. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the respondents to this year's annual study  on undergraduate IT habits from the Educause Center for Applied Research strongly disagreed that having lectures posted on the Web would encourage them to cut class.
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Many professors, however, have been resistant to the technology. At Purdue University, which is attempting to put standard lecture capture technology in 280 classrooms by next semester, faculty members said they would not even be willing to press a button at the beginning of class to initiate the recording, according to David Eisert, the manager of emerging technologies there.
“It was a six-month discovery process just to figure out what the faculty wanted,” said Eisert, who spoke at a session  focusing on Purdue as a use case for scaled lecture-capture deployment. “We said, ‘If there’s a start button on the Questron monitor as you walk into the classroom, will you hit Start for your lecture’ — ‘No.’ ” (The Faculty Senate chair at the university, via e-mail, declined to comment on the remarks, saying he had not heard from other faculty members about the issue.)
The faculty’s general unwillingness to work with lecture capture technology prompted Purdue to enlist the educational technology firm Echo360 to formulate a work-around solution that would require minimal cooperation from professors.
An audience member at the session said that professors could save their institutions a lot of money if they were willing to work with the technology even just a little. “If you’re just capturing the lecture and slides, you can do that for free with Keynote [presentation software from Apple, Inc.], and it syncs the audio with the slides — you can put it on iTunes or Blackboard,” she said.
“I went upstairs and asked you folks about lecture capture,” she said, addressing Echo360 president Mark Jones, who sat on the session panel with Eisert, “and I was astonished at the price. You can do the same thing for 79 bucks — all I do is press a button and record the lecture. I just don’t see the advantage.”
“The advantage,” answered Eisert, “is that if you ask your faculty to do that, a majority won’t.”
Nor were the academic departments at Purdue willing to shell out for cheaper lecture-capture alternatives out of their own budgets, he said. He would not say how much Purdue is spending to implement the automated technology in more than 280 classrooms.
Reluctant professors were not the only obstacle to deploying lecture capture at scale, said Eisert. Broadcasting to the Web what goes on in the traditionally closed environment of the classroom carries inherent security risks. Purdue officials submitted a security audit to Echo360 comprising more than 1,000 pages of potential hazards that would have to be addressed in the implementation.
Deploying a complex system campus-wide also creates pressure to avoid malfunctions, added Jones, the Echo360 president. “The minute somebody starts to rely on it, the minute it doesn’t work, there’s hell to pay,” he said. “…Doing that on the scale of in the classrooms, and the recordings — just moving the data around, we’re talking a tremendous volume of video, trans-coding, distributed back-end servers — so it’s not a trivial engineering challenge when you’re running it at that scale.”