In addition to the undergraduate teaching I do in the economics department at Yale, I teach statistical methods in the RWJ Clinical Scholars Program. Starting at ground zero with an intensive 5 weeks of foundational probability and statistics over the summer, we gradually build up to some pretty fancy methods by the end of the following spring. My students are terrific–They are all physicians who want to know how to read and understand published research and analyze their own data. No one is there because they have to be there–everyone is invested. That makes my job a lot easier and a lot more fun!
Statistics is a layered subject–almost everything we cover builds on what we covered in the previous class. Unfortunately, during the year, many of these physicians have to miss classes to do service rotations or attend conferences. This is top of all the normal reasons for missing class like being sick or kids being sick. We needed a good way to let these students catch up.
One option would be distributing the slides I use when I teach, but most of what I say doesn’t appear on my slides. I use my slides to provide a map of where I’m going and hold things like tables, equations, or photographs that I talk about. This makes the in-class experience better, but it also means perusing my slide deck is a poor substitute for attending class.
About a year ago, we decided we would try video recording the lectures. We didn’t have the budget to hire a videographer and when we set up an unattended camera at the back of the class, it didn’t pick up the audio, slides, or board work–i.e., It was terrible. That’s when we found out we could hold class in a room that had Echo360 automatic lecture capture installed. There was a camera in the back to record me, a wireless microphone, and it recorded everything that happened on screen separately.
The overall system has been good, and the support we’ve been getting from Matthew Snyder and John Harford in Yale’s Communication and Collaboration Technlogies group has been excellent. On the other hand, in-room hardware has been problematic, and it’s taken quite a bit of time to get the process right. The audio quality in that room has been awful, but I still have hope we’ll figure out how to fix it. The camera in the back is super low-res and seeing a blurry figure at the front of the class waving at the slides doesn’t add much value. Just a few days ago I learned that this room was one of the first EchoStar-equipped rooms at Yale and the hardware in the newer ones is a lot better.
I’ve had to adjust my lecturing style such that I do no board work at all (it doesn’t get recorded), and instead use my trusty Wacom tablet to annotate my slides. Teaching online has given me a lot of practice and my handwriting has improved. I’ve also learned to leave white space on slides where I want to write things.
The best thing about the Echo360 system is that it can be completely automated. The recordings are scheduled and within minutes of class being over, they are available to everyone in the class on the web. The second best thing is that when I need to teach in a regular classroom, I can use the Echo360 Personal Capture software to record the screen and my audio. As long as I don’t stray too far from my computer, it works well and frankly seeing me wander around the room doesn’t add a whole lot to the experience anyway. When class is over, I publish the lecture to the same central location with a couple clicks of my mouse.
A year ago, we thought we might be able to do more with these captured videos. We considered posting them online to wider community or making them the core of an online class. Alas, the quality just isn’t high enough, and the lectures themselves aren’t designed for passive viewing. That is, the class is highly interactive and I think anyone not in the class might find them frustrating to watch. Online classes deserve custom design, and although it’s possible that with some heavy editing the video might be useful outide the group, I don’t think it would be worth the effort.
For this class, the benefits lecture capture definitely outweigh the costs. Students who miss class can catch up, and students who want to review material can do so. And once the system is set up, it requires almost no work to keep it humming along.