Students want lecture recordings. Some academics say they’re preventing students from learning what they need. A policy change at Victoria University of Wellington points to how digitisation in the tertiary sector might play out.
Over 3,000 people have signed a petition asking Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington to make access to lecture recordings universal. The petition, as well as an open letter from the Victoria University of Wellington Student Association (VUWSA), follows moves from the university to encourage second year law students to attend classes in person. What might appear to be a minor revision to university policy following three years of mandated access to recordings during the pandemic has opened a discussion about what the future of learning looks like at Aotearoa’s universities.
“As students, our realities are complex,” said Jessica Ye, academic vice-president at VUWSA. “Over the pandemic, lecture recordings have been available for the full length of a course.”
Employment, disability, and family responsibilities can all be barriers to attending lectures, as well as sickness and general emergencies – what Ye describes as “shit hitting the fan”. To the student association, keeping recordings accessible is vital for learning. “Students are having to sacrifice time in class to pay bills,” Ye said.
A campaign by the National Disabled Students Association (NDSA) accompanies the petition, saying that disabled students are not lazy for missing class. “I don’t know a single student that doesn’t work part-time or has a health condition which means they can’t go to class. Everyone’s going to need access to these recordings,” NDSA founder Alice Mander told Stuff.
Some Auckland University law lecturers wrote in support of compulsory lecture attendance compulsory on Newsroom, saying it “could be described as a courageous attempt to address a growing crisis in legal education” and that their students are not attending class, relying on passively absorbing lectures (or even speeding them up) without the opportunity for engagement and developing relationships with their lecturers. While “draconian” measures aren’t appropriate, and the struggle to get to class for students under financial pressure or with chronic health conditions are understandable, they say maintaining high standards of learning and teaching in person must be a priority for the university.
Te Herenga Waka’s academic vice-provost, Stuart Brock, told The Spinoff that he is largely sympathetic to the challenges students are facing, and that at present, all second year law lectures would be recorded, with the recordings made available to the students who need them. “We want to support students, especially low-income and disabled students,” he said, pointing to the university’s Disability Support centre, and efforts since 2020 to provide low-income students with devices and wi-fi.
However, students’ desire to access lecture recordings needs to be considered in terms of how to learn effectively, Brock said. “We want students to be actively learning – staff want to ensure engagement in the course, which is one of the greatest predictors of academic success.”
“[Lecture recordings] are an important back-up accessibility measure,” said Ye, explaining that students appreciate that learning doesn’t just come from absorbing lecture content. “Connection is one of the most rewarding aspects of study. But that doesn’t mean that we have to take away access to recordings. Students need clear expectations about what lecture recordings are for – that they’re a supplement to learning.”
For students who have only studied during the pandemic, continuing to study might be contingent on remote access to lecture content, Ye said; those enrolling for the 2023 need to trust that “the rug won’t be pulled out from under them”.
The debate around lecture recordings can be framed as academics who are reasonably demoralised by emptier lecture theatres and concerned for their students learning on one side, and students who say that lecture recordings help them to learn through sickness, family commitments and financial hardship on the other. But turning the issue into a debate conceals how students, academics and universities all want pupils to be able to learn to the best of their ability. “It’s such a binary narrative,” Ye said. “It’s not that lecture recordings and in-person teaching have to compete: they can complement each other.”
To Brock, this isn’t just a question for Te Herenga Waka: universities across Aotearoa must adapt to new norms of online learning. “It’s a sensitive topic around the world – the pandemic has changed student demand for recorded lectures.” But preparing universities for changes to learning must go beyond whacking slideshows and audio online; already, the university’s enrolment system allows students to enrol no matter where they live, and indicates whether selected courses will be available online. “The university is invested in upskilling teaching staff – we’re looking at what delivering the teaching experience beyond 2024 will look like.”
With academic staff under pressure from multiple directions – and many currently part of strike action – developing good quality online learning needs more resourcing, said Ye. “All of this boils down to staff having more support from the university to deliver education.”
Simon McCallum, a senior lecturer in computer science at Te Herenga Waka, agrees. “When staff are stressed and overloaded, it’s hard for lecturers to learn as well,” he said. McCallum has been recording his lectures online for two decades, and currently uses Twitch, YouTube and Discord to share his teaching and facilitate students to engage with him and each other.
Making education – whether online or in person – interactive, engaging and useful requires rethinking how university is taught, McCallum said. He thinks that in the future lecturers might create different resources for students learning online and those attending lectures in person. Facilitating this will require access to equipment and software, including good microphones and cameras – McCallum has invested in a portable greenscreen to use for lectures, but appreciates that many will not be comfortable with this technology. To McCallum, it’s vital for universities in Aotearoa to make online learning good now, because the global nature of the internet could mean that potential students go overseas without leaving the country. “Some teaching will go online and stay online, [but] lots of students still want that residential university experience.”
To Ye, the demand for lecture recordings shows how the idea of who can study at a university has changed, accelerated by the pandemic. “It’s not like when our lecturers were studying; we have a more diverse student body, with Māori, Pasifika and disabled students particularly. The resources and pastoral care available on an in-person campus need to stay, she said. But so does access to lecture recordings. “We’re fighting for bottom line accessibility.”