There are good reasons so many teachers object to lecture capture

Election week is upon us and it’s incredibly heartening to see that a number of people have chosen to divert the electorate’s attention to the marketisation of HE. Specifics range from the need to oppose the HE reform bill and the impending Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the boycott of the National Student Survey, and the casualisation and low pay of hourly-paid teachers.

To see such a wide spread of candidates across various posts all pitching on these issues would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago, and it’s much to the credit of Warwick for Free Education, the work of recent sabbatical officers, and (dare I say it) Warwick Anti-Casualisation and its forerunners that these topics are becoming a staple feature of students’ concerns. Go to any staff or UCU meeting and you’ll see the regard students are held in for their capacity to mobilise and campaign around important issues, so to see students taking up causes that matter so much to teachers’ working conditions (i.e. students’ learning conditions) is genuinely exciting.

Yet a key sticking point remains. Like bus provision and food prices before it, it’s a demand which is almost universally seen as the new vote-winner: lecture capture.

Lecture capture is an umbrella term for a technological capability possessed by universities which has grown in use in HE over the last ten years. In short, it is a program which creates an audiovisual recording of lectures to be viewed online at a later date. Options range from a recording of projected slides overlaid with an audio recording, to a camera recording of lecturers in the classroom.

What’s so bad about lecture capture? There are two related issues here, each sending a shiver up the spine of many teachers: the implications of the technology itself, and the effect of students campaigning for it.

A motion passed at the 2016 UCU Congress noted eight inexhaustive concerns arising from lecture capture:

  • Its potential use in peer observation
  • Issues of academic freedom
  • Additional workload and time pressures
  • Possible issues for disabled staff and students
  • Questions over pedagogic value
  • Use of recordings to monitor staff performance
  • The need for guidelines on intellectual property rights
  • The right of the individual to opt out

In particular, the motion highlighted the potential use as a performance (i.e. disciplinary) mechanism by managers and the future replacement of people (by recordings) on taught modules as areas for concern, calling for a consultation of members.

The UCU has always maintained the basic principle that teachers should not be recorded without their agreement, which makes it alarming that SU candidates tend to speak in terms of a generalised (or even mandatory) rolling out of the system. Aside from the obvious question of whether a simulated lecture can ever be a substitute for ‘the real thing’, which I will bracket here, there are a number of contentious political and legal issues related to lecture capture which make its widespread implementation anything but straightforward.

The first is about legal rights. The law suggests any materials produced by an employee of the university in the course of their role are assumed to be copyright of the institution – so lecture slides or handouts, prepared presentation notes or a script, etc. Note that it’s not clear where hourly-paid tutors (who are not recognised as ‘employees’) would stand in this equation, and nor does copyright extend to students – which raises questions over the future of class participation if the university wants to market the recorded lectures (which I’ll get onto shortly).

Aside from the issue of copyright, there are also performance rights attached to lectures. This means live presentations made by a teacher are the intellectual property of the teacher in the first instance. Consequently, any recording made by the employer require (by law) the agreement of the teacher. Further to these key issues, there are a host of problems introduced depending on who’s ‘producing’ the recording, whether the recording is audio or audiovisual, and the use of copyrighted or personal material in class.

The second is an employment issue which feeds into wider political issues around marketisation and managerialism in the sector. Aside from casualised teachers, lectures tend to be given by employees. Employees have employment contracts, which set out the obligations of the employee and employer. So far, the UCU has raised questions over the implications of lecture capture for prior agreed contractual obligations. In particular, it is feared lecture capture could effectively put ‘a boss in every classroom’ with recorded lectures used as sticks to beat staff with in the name of euphemistically-titled ‘performance monitoring’, similar to how call centre workers’ recorded phone calls are used as a disciplinary and control mechanism. While inviting peers to sit in on classes can be pedagogically useful in terms of feedback and improvement, it’s quite another thing for your boss to be able to drop in on any lecture at any time.

Furthermore, and more worryingly, some institutions are going so far as to develop digital libraries of recordings for use as future teaching tools. In 2013, UCU guidance raised the very real concern – widely held – that “these developments open up the possibility of the franchising or selling of staff lecture performances” which raises the prospect of “recorded lectures being used as justification for a reduction in direct student contact time and in actual teaching staff”. In the worst case scenario, advances in lecture capture could mean universities are able to employ staff on fixed term or casual contracts, record their lectures, and run the module they wrote and taught long after their employment has been discontinued by the university.

A third issue relates to academic freedom. As the university holds the copyright of any captured lecture, there exists a risk of excerpts being made which take elements from the lecture out of their context without the teacher’s control or consent. A further concern exists in the prospect of increasingly managerially-minded institutions looking to intervene in the content of lectures or modules, especially those given my heterodox academics. At Warwick, students and staff ought to be aware that the university is currently attempting to reform Statute 24; the regulation which “ensures that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges” – in short it protects academics from being made redundant if they say or publish something the university doesn’t like or feels isn’t marketable enough, in turn protecting the purpose and mission of the university by virtue of it being a university. The proposed redraft classes as ‘gross misconduct’ any “conduct which could damage the reputation of the university”. Yes, that’s right: ‘could’. The university has shown where its political will lies on academic freedom; lecture capture only exacerbates matters.

These are just three real concerns about lecture capture in and of itself, but the situation is made worse for teachers by the status lecture capture has among student politicians.

First off, the UCU’s position is that “filming and recording lectures should be negotiated between the union and the employer, specifying the circumstances in which filming or recording lectures is acceptable”. It’s a really basic principle that a decent union shouldn’t try to directly contradict other unions (especially in the same sector). It flies in the face of inter-union discussions and strategy, and weakens both our hands when it comes to dealing with management.

For all the performance rights possessed by teachers, there’s a growing culture of expectation around lecture capture in many institutions which serves to benefit management first and foremost and creates a tough atmosphere for teachers who are pressured into waiving their legal right not to be recorded. When teachers and the UCU try to reinforce this basic principle of consent, the university’s first line of defence is “it’s what students want”. Unsurprisingly, universities want to employ teachers who are ‘in tune with what students want’ more than teachers who get all precious about who has which rights and all that nonsense.

So far I’ve focused almost entirely on why institutions want lecture capture, and why so many teachers fear and loathe it so much.

Of course generally students campaign for lecture capture for an altogether less malevolent reason: accessibility.

I doubt you would find many teachers who would be opposed to recording lectures for personal use on access grounds, and certainly the UCU encourages staff to be supportive of requests for recordings by disabled students as a ‘reasonable adjustment’. However, as the motion to last year’s UCU congress states: “Lecture capture for reasons of inclusivity (e.g. as part of ‘Inclusive Learning Policies’) should not be undertaken uncritically. Adjustments that are reasonable in the individual case may not be reasonable in the general case…”

I wouldn’t deny that there may exist some teachers out there who are more intransigent. I should highlight there is the under-considered issue here that disability and other personal issues can be just and appropriate reasons for staff not wanting to be recorded, though I also concede that some academics might just be dicks when it comes to making reasonable adjustments in practice.

But there’s a difference between students campaigning for the university or departments or individual teachers to be more proactive in making reasonable adjustments, and campaigning to extend the reach of lecture capture, a specific technological capability which pressures teachers into forgoing their legal rights, autonomy and academic freedom.

Like constant demands for ‘improved feedback’ and more gimmicky initiatives such as ‘Rate My Module’, the campaign for lecture capture ignores the effect it has on ordinary teachers and the position it puts them in, misdirecting good intentions towards increased managerial strength. There’s good sense in all these initiatives, but they’re often framed in oppositional terms, as if teachers aren’t also being pressured and assessed year-round. Instead, a well-meaning demand ends up being counterproductive because the first route adopted to achieve the goal is too often the most top-down one available.

Take ‘improved feedback’ – many departments now specify how many ‘lines’ of feedback markers have to give as a performance mechanism, resulting in formulaic and generic feedback due the time pressures placed on marking. The terrible irony is we often know the feedback isn’t the best it could be while we’re giving it, but we’re expected to read, assess and write feedback for papers in unrealistic times. Any extra time we’d like to give it is unpaid, which few tutors can afford, so the real solution is for the university to pay tutors properly and afford us the time and wages necessary to provide actually-useful written and verbal feedback.

Similarly, there are real (non-lecture capture) solutions available for the problems students who advocate lecture capture are trying to answer. For accessibility, the university should provide students with an easier means of indicating which adjustments they require, and teachers should be afforded paid time to ensure self-made personal-use recordings can reach students with access needs in good time. The UCU and SU could do more to remind all teachers of the importance and necessity or making reasonable adjustments. Where a desire exists for a learning or revision aid (the second most common reason students advocate lecture capture), the university should be providing better study skills training so that students are able to take notes effectively during classes.

These are prosaic suggestions, but they all aim to take on the issues underpinning the recent desire for lecture capture. Many universities are less interested in these alternative solutions, because for university bosses lecture capture is a unique prize: it satisfies students and opens a new world for managerialist adventures. Until we receive the necessary reassurances, lecture capture remains an insidious management tool which undermines educators and points to the digital marketisation and casualisation of HE. Pressure to adopt lecture capture is increasing all the time – we can’t afford to be uncritical of it. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.

This is an individually authored post by a member of Warwick Anti-Casualisation.

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