In a previous blog posting, I outlined my use of a tablet PC in the classroom. One of the ways I use the tablet is to screencast my lecture, recording both the visual output (my notes and PowerPoint) and my voice. Students who miss a lecture can catch up, or students who are struggling with a tough topic can simply fast forward in the recording to review the topic again.
In my previous experiences with screencasting, I noted very little dropoff in class attendance. However, this spring is different. I teach organic chemistry to around 100 students. As the semester has progressed, I have observed a gradual decrease in classroom attendance accompanied by an increase in viewings of the lecture screencasts. Part of the decrease in attendance could be due to the 8AM start time (for a TTh class that also means a class that lasts 1 hour and 20 minutes). But could that be the only reason? I have also observed that this class is performing better than previous classes. What does that mean?
On the first day of class, I tell the students I’m screencasting the lectures, but I also tell them that viewing the recordings should not be a substitute for actual classroom attendance. Why not? For one thing, during the lecture they can ask questions. Furthermore, the recordings won’t pick up the laser pointer I liberally use during my lectures. But is that it? If there are no other advantages to coming to class, then why bother dragging yourself out of bed to attend an 8AM class if you can just watch the recording later? Students can always visit during my office hours to ask any questions they might have, and they can figure out from the recordings what I might be pointing at with my laser pointer.
One possible conclusion is that I have simply become the dreaded “content deliverer.” If my students are generally doing well and learning what I think they should be learning in organic chemistry, then even though my lectures are just content delivery, I’m doing my job. There’s no reason to come to class. Is that a bad thing? In chemistry, we teach our students “the facts,” leaving little room for discussion or debate. As a result, I would argue that many of our classes (and classes in other sciences I would imagine) are more or less content delivery.
Maybe I need to give my students a better reason to attend class. But do I really need to do this if the students are in fact learning what they should? Does attending SMU mean you will get something beyond simple content delivery? What if I’m really good at content delivery and teaching the facts? In all of my classes, there are always some students who do poorly. Does that mean there’s some special in-class technique out there I should be implementing that can help those students? Should I feel obligated to do more in class than what I’m doing already?