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Lecture capture at the University of Essex – from occasional analog to ubiquitous digital

A guest blog post from Ben Steeples, e-Learning Technologist at the University of Essex

University of EssexThe University of Essex has been recording lectures for over six years now, and the way we support lecture capture has undergone some major transformations during that time. The university initially started capturing lecture content to provide extra support to specific students with special educational needs, but it has now become an institution-wide practice. The overwhelming majority of our 700 lecturers now record all of their sessions, meaning that we’re able to provide on-demand lecture resources to our 13,000-strong student body. Naturally, with such a big shift in the scale of lecture capture, we’ve had to completely rethink our technical approach and work out how to move from ‘occasional analog’ to ‘ubiquitous digital’ modes of delivery.

The rationale behind our original experiments with lecture capture was to give students with special educational needs (such as dyslexia) the ability to access recorded material from the live lecture to review at will. So how did we facilitate this? Well, as late as 2010, we were actually recording lectures to audio cassette tapes. We had 15 of our main teaching rooms hardwired to cassette recorders and a full-time member of staff had to go through our student record system and identify students who needed this kind of special support. This staff member would then have to:

  • go through the students’ calendars to identify which lectures to record
  • load the tapes in the right rooms
  • press start and stop at the beginning and end of the lectures
  • label and duplicate the cassettes
  • distribute the cassettes to the relevant students.

When we had a room that wasn’t covered by this system, our colleague would go to the room with a handheld cassette recorder to capture the lecture.  In all, they were responsible for producing in the region of 4,000 cassettes a year.

When the member of staff responsible for this process announced their retirement it gave us the perfect opportunity to rethink this approach – especially as students were frankly a bit bemused by being given cassette tapes! Some students would ask us what the cassettes were and many didn’t have a cassette player – meaning that the IT team had to distribute cassette players as well as the tapes. We also had to explain to students used to listening to MP3s that once you’d listened to one side of the cassette you had to physically turn it round the other way to listen to the rest of the content! We knew this approach was unsustainable and were keen to offer a much more 21st century way of delivering on-demand lecture content.

Our first foray into digital lecture capture was in 2011. This project wasn’t with Panopto and was pretty basic, capturing just the audio track of the lecture and delivering that to students as an MP3. It actually started out as an offshoot from a separate project led by our AV team, which had built and deployed digital signage solutions to around 40 teaching rooms. These consisted of a small form factor PC and a touchscreen monitor. The AV team realised that they could add a USB microphone and put it in the teaching room. They could then program these boxes to record 1 hour long MP3 files, which were then dumped onto a central server.

My team got involved in this project by building a student-facing website to present these recordings to the relevant students under the name ‘Listen Again’. The site looked at student timetables and correlated this with available recordings so we could tie the two together – adding a greater level of sophistication into the whole process. And, as simplistic as it was, it turns out that it worked really well – so well,  in fact, that students’ delight at being able to access on-demand recordings of their lectures quickly turned into expectation. Moreover, all the students with special educational needs who were entitled to get recordings of their lectures loved it and told their flatmates and friends about it. This resulted in students who didn’t get lecture capture as standard hammering on our door, asking to be given recordings too – and not just audio, but with screen capture too.

Unfortunately this enthusiasm wasn’t shared by their lecturers – at least at first. Academics were initially fairly reluctant to offer access to lecture recordings across the board for various reasons. For a start, many people are just inherently resistant to change. In this specific context, academics were worried that lecture capture would replace them or would result in a big drop in student attendance which would lead to students becoming disengaged. Even with the wealth of research out there that contradicts these concerns, many staff still held these beliefs and so we had to have a lot of discussion with lecturers and other stakeholders to alleviate their worries. Our challenge was to convince them that in most cases, the addition of recorded lectures would be a great boost to teaching and learning and would enhance student satisfaction.

At this point, we were very clear on two things. Firstly, we knew that growing numbers of our students were demanding access to recorded lectures and we wanted to be able to meet this demand so that we could improve the student learning experience. Secondly, we knew that we had both technical and cultural challenges to overcome in order to offer the kind of lecture recordings students were looking for.

It became obvious that our ambitious plans for lecture recording couldn’t be met with the set-up we had created internally and so we began the process of looking for a commercial lecture capture solution to better support our institution’s needs. We had also come to realise that the functionality of the lecture capture system we chose could play its part in overcoming some of the resistance to adopting lecture capture – for instance, by providing strict access permissions and granular opt-out options so that when there were genuine instances where recording a lecture would be inappropriate, we could accommodate this.

Taking a moment to think about the technical requirements we were looking for in our new lecture capture solution, we wanted a platform that:

  • would capture pretty much anything – including a presenter’s screen
  • could provide a robust permissions model based on staff opt-in preferences and make it easy for staff to change their preferences if needs be
  • could be used with our existing hardware
  • could essentially be managed by one person – not a huge team
  • required minimal intervention from staff, so they didn’t have to – for instance – opt-in to each and every recording if they knew they wanted to capture a whole terms’ worth of content
  • we could integrate with our timetabling system
  • would allow us to keep our existing front-end (which lots of students looked on with great fondness).

Additionally, we knew we wanted to go big with lecture capture, so it was essential to choose a solution that would work campus-wide at mass scale.

We looked at several different solutions during the evaluation process, but having reviewed our options fully, we picked Panopto because it best addressed the technical requirements we had identified. As well as having the core functionality we were looking for, as an added bonus, the API was also really good. We had always been a team that liked to get stuck in and experiment where possible and the API offered us the scope to do some customisation and develop additional functionality in-house. This meant that Panopto fit in with our team’s culture and working style, as well as with our overarching institutional requirements.

In 2012, supported by Panopto, we expanded lecture recording to 60 rooms to record about 40,000 hours of lecture material. We used Panopto’s remote recording functionality to automate the lecture capture process, installing the software on standard PCs and using some additional audio hardware to better pick up the sound.

Fast forward to 2015, and with Panopto we can now record in approximately 180 rooms. This represents nearly 90% of our formal teaching spaces. The only exceptions to this almost ubiquitous recording set-up are our small rooms (such as individual offices), impractical rooms (such as wet labs) and impractical locations (such as the sports field). This huge growth in the number of rooms we support is only set to increase further. By summer 2016, we will be able to record in 220 teaching spaces. In the 2015-2016 academic year, we aim to capture 90,000 hours of teaching, which equates to around 300 – 400 recordings a day.

With Panopto we’ve been able to reach this kind of scale and do it our way. For instance, while many institutions would integrate Panopto with their VLE, we integrate purely with our front-end website and Active Directory. This means we don’t have to deal with a VLE imposing its structure on our set-up. The flexibility of the Panopto Video Platform means that we’ve been able to offer lecture capture in a way that takes into account the specifics of our institutional set-up and some of the unique ways we want to deliver recorded content to our students. It’s very much ‘our’ view of lecture recording, but powered by Panopto.

If you want to find out more about how Panopto can help your institution offer lecture capture at scale, you can request a demo and free trial from a member of our team.