Preparing Lectures for Large Online Classes (CHE)

September 14, 2015

by Anastasia Salter

This semester, I’m teaching a fairly large (130 at final count) online course in digital media. I wrote last month about some of the strategies I’ve used to prepare the course, including thinking about replacements for in-class activities and planning a highly structured series of content. However, one of my biggest challenges has been planning an alternative to lectures. I’m used to thinking of “lecture” as a dialogue, with opportunities for interaction, connection, and breaking up the class into small group discussion regularly to avoid the “sage on the stage” disconnect. I typically integrate software and technology tutorials with lecture, with as much hands-on time as possible.

It’s very difficult to replicate these types of interactions online.

Originally, I was thinking about holding optional synchronous class meetings to allow for some back and forth with students, with a live chat occurring during those meetings. However, my online class has no scheduled meeting times, and it’s unreasonable to expect students to participate in synchronous activities that weren’t originally scheduled (particularly as the alternative, watching the videos afterwards, would likely give students who couldn’t participate a very different experience). It’s also tricky to manage the technical problem of meaningful chat at that scale, making it unlikely that anything of much value could come out of the live chat.

So, I’ve accepted the need for some video lectures this semester. These lectures fill different roles in the course:

  • they introduce units,
  • demonstrate how to play and interact with some of our complex texts, and
  • provide tutorials on software and scripting technologies we’re using.

Choosing the right technology for recording lectures is essential.  I’m using an open-source solution, Open Broadcaster Software, to record my screencasting. (I don’t tend to use video of myself; while web cameras can provide humanity for a course, they are usually less useful than the actual images and programs running on the screen.) Open Broadcaster Software is tricky to get started with: it’s designed for live streaming, but it can also just output to a file. Getting it set up requires using the monitor or particular programs as a source for the video. I tend to switch programs and work a lot from the browser, so I set up my tabs before I start the program for easy transitions.

The most awkward part of online teaching is the problem of talking to myself. I find it impossible to record in an environment with anyone else around, as the self-consciousness of making bad jokes or explaining a software interface to no-one can feel even worse with silent witnesses (cats not included.) However, I’ve talked with other faculty who like to ask a friend or relative to sub in for their audience, which can be helpful for having eye contact and someone’s expressions to gauge interest and clarity. Recording for an online class made me realize how much I rely on that physical feedback to plan my timing and figure out when to switch modalities or explain something in more detail.

When working in video, I try to avoid reaching the same length in one installment that I would expect for an in-person course. I try to take active parts of the class and separate them from the video content, so a normal week of online assignments will require a journal activity, discussion, readings, and a video lecture. This allows me to keep the videos at a manageable length (I aim for approximately thirty minutes each), which ideally should be easier for a student to follow and fit into their week. I find that my first attempt to record any class is shorter than my goal, as I tend to speed up without an audience. To counteract that problem, I record each of my classes at least twice and treat the first pass as a practice run.

Be prepared to go back and listen to yourself on video as a way to judge the effectiveness of any particular recording: this is without a doubt my least favorite part of preparing online video, but it’s essential. The review offers an opportunity to notice and reflect on choices and habits in a way that’s difficult after teaching live. It’s also a chance to evaluate the effectiveness of your set-up and hardware: you’ll need a good microphone headset (not a built-in webcam mic) to get decent clear audio. To select mine, I used Wirecutter’s recommendations and picked the fairly affordable Microsoft LifeChat LX-6000. It’s also important to check your video for ambient sound and unexpected surprises, as audio interruptions on a video can be even worse than in person. I now plan on optimal times of the day when I can have the quietest environment to record lectures for the next module, and it makes a big difference to my ease of preparation and the resulting video.

While video screencasts should only be one part of an online class, it can be an important opportunity for demonstrations and connections that might not be as easily realized in text content or discussion. Have you recorded video for online classes? Share your tips in the comments!

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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