When the Only Seat Is in Front of a Screen

U of Central Florida is using lecture-capture technology to enroll more students than can fit in its classrooms. But is a live stream a sufficient replacement for a face-to-face lecture?

September 2, 2015
U of Central Florida
A still from a promotional video

Students at the University of Central Florida are fighting for seats in the institution's crowded lecture halls. Those who can't find a spot have to tune in online.

Live-streaming lectures is not a new idea. Some institutions have broadcast lectures live for more than a decade, lecture-capture providers pointed out. But a recent story in The Orlando Sentinel, which featured “mega-classes” in the College of Business enrolling in one case nearly four times as many students as their assigned classrooms can seat and students sprawled in the aisles, has highlighted a particular use of the technology.

UCF, like many of Florida’s public institutions, has more qualified applicants than it has room for. To address the issue of overcrowded introductory courses, UCF has opted for a “first-come, first-served” strategy: pile as many students into lecture halls as possible, and use lecture-capture technology to both live stream and record sessions for students who can’t find a seat.

The university's neighbor to the north in Gainesville, the University of Florida, is also experimenting with using technology to enroll more students. The university earlier this year invited thousands of students to enroll in Pathway to Campus Enrollment, or PaCE, a program where students complete 60 credits online before coming to campus as upperclassmen. Even though the students invited to join PaCE would not have been accepted into residential programs because of space issues, many students were confused by the offer.

The situation at UCF is different, however. Students there have been accepted into and paid to attend residential programs and registered for classes, yet some are finding that doesn’t guarantee them a physical seat in their classes.

The practice has been around for years, but the number of mega-classes continues to rise. This spring, the university offered 111 such courses, according to an official count. And new students continue to give mixed feedback -- some welcoming the convenience, others expressing frustration.

“Thanks, UCF, for having lecture-capture courses so I don’t have to go to class ever,” one student tweeted last month.

Another student, seemingly in response to complaints about the format, tweeted, “Bunch of rookies at UCF complaining about no seats available in a class. It's a lecture-capture course. Watch it online. Overachievers …”

When lecture capture started to gain popularity a few years ago, proponents took care to describe the technology as an enhancement, not a replacement, for face-to-face instruction. A UCF promotional video from 2010, for example, promoted recorded lectures as a way to improve retention and test scores -- with students able to show up in person when they wanted, while having video available as well.

A spokesperson for the university said it was "fair" to make an ethical argument about the mega-classes, but added that students are informed that attending lectures is optional when they first register for the courses. Attendance in the mega-classes typically drops after the first two or three weeks of class, after which there are "more than enough seats" for the students who wish to attend, the spokesperson said.

"There are benefits to lecture capture -- you can review the material over and over again with stop, rewind and pause options," the spokesperson said. "Students also have the visual material presented during the class, such as charts, available for closer inspection multiple times at their convenience. Another point worth mentioning is that for the past few years UCF students who take blended classes perform as well and sometimes better than those who take only face-to-face courses."

Companies that provide lecture-capture technology said live streaming is a rapidly growing trend among the colleges they serve, although most universities still prefer to record lectures so students can review them on their own time after having attended in person first.

“From a technology perspective, the use of lecture capture for live streaming mega-classes is a logical extension of what lecture capture was originally envisioned for,” said Ari Bixhorn, vice president of marketing for Panopto. The company, which spun off from Carnegie Mellon University in 2007 after five years of incubation, provides lecture-capture technology to UCF.

The trend is being fueled by improvements in streaming technology, Bixhorn said. As recently as two years ago, live streaming courses meant college IT offices had to tweak their firewalls to avoid the stream being blocked, he said, but now, live streaming functions more or less similarly to recording lectures. “You check one additional button, and the recording you’re making will also be live streamed,” he said.

Bixhorn declined to talk about the ethical implications of enrolling more students in a course than can fit in a classroom, but called it an “interesting scenario.”

At UCF, students who watch the live stream can still ask questions in real time, which appear on the lecturer’s computer. The Panopto platform also collects data on student viewing patterns, including how many students tuned in to the lecture and how much of it they watched, Bixhorn said.

Fred Singer, CEO of the lecture-capture company Echo360, said future versions of the software need to capture more than numbers of viewership. He suggested institutions such as UCF ask themselves, “How do I take advantage of the fact that my campus is extended with technology?”

In addition to letting students ask questions, lecture-capture platforms could also be used to determine whether students watching the live stream are taking notes and understanding course concepts, Singer said. That information could in turn help colleges improve retention rates and student outcomes, he said.

“Whether you’re streaming video or capturing it, the next generation is really about capturing the responses and the engagement of students,” Singer said. “Live streaming itself is great … but in and of itself it doesn’t improve outcomes.”

This story has been updated with comments from the university.


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