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Lecture recordings: the bridge to accessible learning

ByFelix Saward

Mar 23, 2020

Students with disabilities can require lecture recordings for several reasons, boiling down to two main features. Either, they need recordings to re-listen/watch lectures because of a learning difficulty or similar, or their disability means that they cannot attend lectures altogether or their absence rate is higher because of that disability. This forces those with disabilities to make a choice: either, they must attend a lecture that they otherwise would not and causes them significant discomfort, or means that they must attempt to catch up in other ways which could also cause discomfort. This forced choice becomes weighing the lesser of two hardships. Thus, for a university to create a fully accessible learning environment, lecture recordings are absolutely necessary. 

The concern that some lecturers have with recordings generally falls into 3 categories. The first is fairly easy to solve (in that it doesn’t need to be), the latter are not.

The first concern is to do with student attitude and attendance. Essentially, if recordings are made available, students are less likely to attend lectures, thus negatively affecting their learning and results. However, this should not be a reason to not record lectures. If a student chooses to make the decision to not attend a lecture, despite the weight of evidence suggesting that it is best to do the other, that is an individual choice. In my experience, in recorded lectures students are explicitly told that attending lectures is far better for them than watching the recording back. Pamphlets and presentations of advice are numerous and widely available. Lack of awareness is not a problem. Therefore, in the absence of any other problems, to not record a lecture for reasons of attendance is putting the prevention of able-bodied neurotypical students from making poor decisions above the principle of accessibility. This should not be the case.

The second is to do with intellectual property. Once a lecture has been recorded, it is uploaded onto a central server which the lecturer has little to no control over, which means that they lose control of their intellectual property. Ideally, this wouldn’t be a problem, because there should be a level of trust between academics and the institutions in which they teach. But, the University made a fundamentally awful  decision two years ago, which completely shot any idea of trust being a part of the system of lecture recordings. 

The decision to which I am referring was made during the 2018 UCU strikes. During that strike, lecturers did not teach, and therefore the university decided that the best thing to do was to make lecture recordings from previous years available to current students. Lecturers who had withdrawn their labour were being undermined by labour they had carried out previously. This had the completely foreseeable consequence of lecturers not wanting to be recorded in case they needed to withdraw their labour again, as has been happening over the past month. This is one of the most obvious cases of an ill-thought-through short-sighted solution immediately creating far more problems than it sought to solve.

Part of this second concern is controversy, and the effects it could have on undermining free academic discussion. Either, that a student could post a segment of the lecture online and thus invite a torrent of online abuse to that lecturer, or, given the current anti-intelligence stance in some very vocal sections of the media (see headlines such as “our remainer universities”), that anything said in the relative privacy of a politics lecture could be seized on by The Daily Express or some other equally toxic outlet with significant personal damage to that lecturer.

A final concern is to do with student participation. In lectures where there is a high amount of student participation, lecturers are often reluctant to record with the fear that it will discourage students from participating. 

It is university policy that students may make personal recordings of lectures. Of course, this compromise only works if the student can attend the lecture. As outlined at the start, some students with disabilities either cannot attend lectures altogether, or have a high rate of absence directly due to their disability. Those who cannot attend lectures will have no recording. Further, those students are more likely to be socially isolated than their peers, which means that they are often not in a position to ask coursemates to record lectures for them. 

In such a case, students with disabilities fall back on the generic advice given to other people who cannot attend one-off lectures: read the set texts and look at the powerpoint/lecture notes/handouts. First, this method of learning may well not work for those with specific learning disabilities. More important is the ‘one-off’ phrase. When a student is more systematically absent, this either does not work for the student, or makes the lecturer effectively pointless.

The lack of trust in a centrally controlled system could be solved if lecturers had the control over what happened to their recordings. If the course organiser, course secretary, and other guest lecturers could decide what happened to those recordings, this would remove the need to trust university management. For example, it could be decided that recordings would all be wiped at the end of the August resit examinations. Clearly there would need to be some minimum limits: It would be pointless wiping recordings 37 seconds after upload, for example. I propose that minimum limits would be before the start of a new academic year (IE: September). 

There would also be a limit on who could view lecture recordings. Only those who were enrolled in the course could gain access to these recordings. Anybody who distributed the recordings to anyone would be penalised (it would be added to the student code of conduct if it is not already in there). It may be possible to go further, and have the recordings as audio and board (powerpoint/blackboard/whiteboard) only, meaning that the lecturer’s identity is obscured to some extent. I don’t believe that this latter part would be necessary.

On the student participation point, as recordings would only be available to fellow students, those watching a recording would be no more a stranger than those attending the lecture. Therefore, student participation should not decline because of recordings. 

A final option is for lecture recordings to only be available to students with valid reasons, of which disability would be one. I would be reluctant to introduce this, but, if the solutions above do not quell concerns, reducing those who can view recordings to a ‘need-to-see’ basis would be a solution. It would be very useful for those who rely on recordings because of their disability.

Overall, lecture recordings are an integral part of making the university fully accessible for people with disabilities. There are issues with the way that lecture recordings are currently controlled, but the basic idea of lecture recordings is not problematic. There are changes in practice which could be adopted that should alleviate most of the concerns that lecturers have with them.

Image: Discott via Wikimedia Commons