Making instructors comfortable with on-camera roles

How to coach for distance learning and lecture capture

For an increasing number of faculty members, class prep has gone high tech. It’s not about simply reviewing notes and planning course exercises. It also involves stepping in front of a video camera. Whether it’s for distance learning programs or flipped classrooms, colleges and universities now need faculty who are able and willing to teach on camera.

Not all faculty are ready to jump on the bandwagon. While they typically support the use of lecture capture technology, they don’t love the idea of teaching to a camera. It is a challenge institutional officials are now facing as demand for online classes climbs.

Since instructors regularly stand in front of classrooms full of students, why would they take issue with being in front of a camera? Jennifer Flatt, a professor of English and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Marinette who has helped colleagues become more comfortable being recorded for courses, says most instructors have two big fears:

  • That their words will be taken out of context.
  • That how they look and sound on-camera is unflattering.

Fortunately, after a few trial runs, most faculty realize those fears are unfounded, says Flatt. “Anyone watching is watching because they want to learn”—rather than to critique the professor’s outfit or to mock the presentation. And once they realize that they can act naturally in front of the camera and not change how they teach, most instructors relax, says Flatt.

As Flatt and others who work with faculty to help make them comfortable on camera know, resistance to or anxiety about teaching on camera can best be overcome through group training or one-on-one coaching.

Supporting in the course design process

Syracuse University has been a pioneer in distance learning, having begun offering classes online in the 1990s and steadily expanding available courses each semester. In 1998, low-residency graduate programs debuted at Syracuse, along with an IMBA and a series of executive education programs. The push online was initially faculty-driven, says Michael Frasciello, director of online learning at the Syracuse University College of Engineering and Computer Science. But many educators realized the need for support in developing and enhancing their presentation skills. So at Syracuse, that assistance is built into the online course design process.

Just don’t call it training. “ ‘Train’ is a four-letter word,” says Frasciello of the culture at Syracuse. “We coach and advise.” That means helping faculty members present their material in a way that is fun and interesting, rather than completely changing how they teach.

Frasciello works closely with engineering faculty, teaching them how to engage students in online courses. A five-module online prep course that took eight hours to complete, followed by the course design program, used to be the requirement. Now that course has been merged with the course design process. Within that process, Frasciello covers connecting with and engaging students watching the class lectures, providing suggestions for building in exercises and assignments that build on what students learned in the video.

Building a recording studio

Where Syracuse works hand-in-hand with professors who want to teach online, Texas Tech University officials created an in-house recording studio where faculty can record classes on their own.

Suzanne Tapp, director of teaching, learning and professional development at Texas Tech, runs a resource center dedicated to helping instructors improve their teaching skills—online and in person.

A year ago, Tapp recognized the need for a quiet work space for faculty to use for capturing lessons, so she took an area formerly occupied by two offices and combined them into a recording studio. Now it is “a quiet area with good lighting and great acoustics,” with a tech expert around the corner (literally) who can help with the filming process.

Having a designated area and focused time helps produce a quality product, Tapp has found, though the investment in technology doesn’t hurt. In the studio is a 90-inch screen that faculty can view during filming, which helps them spot any gaffes they make, such as looking down at the floor or swaying while they talk. They also can put their materials in front of them for reference and post reminder notes, such as about looking at the camera or speaking more slowly, around the room for quick reference during filming.

The total cost to set up the studio was $8,850, for cameras, mixers, microphones and lights, but not including the Sonic Foundry Mediasite video platform the university already owned.

While some faculty members like to capture complete lectures in one sitting, Tapp advises more frequent, shorter video messages. “One way to connect with students is to get in front of them often,” she says. She does that by filming a quick five-minute weekly update for her students about the current lesson, in addition to the regular class video she produces. Faculty who do prefer to record a number of videos at once often change their clothing after each class or lesson to suggest that time has passed between shoots even when it hasn’t.

Frequency of communication is important when they are not face-to-face with you in class.

While some faculty are content to capture their regular lectures in class and make them available online, others take the technology a step farther. For instance, one of Texas Tech’s musicology professors plays clips of music for students during some of his online lessons, shows PowerPoint slides during others, and shares sheet music as ancillary material, all in the name of engagement.

Gaining ground

About five years ago, University of Wisconsin-Marinette leaders challenged faculty and staff with making use of existing streaming media equipment on campus that was sitting idle. Simultaneously, Flatt was working to find a way to help her students who could not attend her class because of scheduling conflicts.

Her class then became a pilot program, recording some of her lectures using Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite to learn how to use the equipment and turning to the (then) director of distance learning for tips on her delivery.

Soon other faculty were expressing an interest in filming their lectures and a small but informal group formed to share best practices and knowledge about technical issues. The group quickly grew to seven participants, which is 25 percent of the faculty at the Marinette campus. They collaborated on a two-page tips list that was shared campuswide to help faculty members improve their presentation skills on camera.

“Some tips were logistical, such as how to move the camera; others were about student engagement,” says Flatt. For example, Tapp says, “if you look right into the camera as you’re teaching, students watching will feel more like you are talking directly to them.”

Frasciello’s biggest tip is: Don’t turn your back to the camera as you teach, such as when you write on a whiteboard. Students don’t want to look at the back of your head for much of the class.

A big realization that helps many faculty is that no lecture is ever perfect—whether in person or on camera—so don’t stress about trying to make yours error-free. It won’t be, and that’s OK. As long as your personality and passion for your subject come through, your video lesson will be a success.

Although Marinette faculty haven’t organized a meeting on distance learning in a year, theirs is a collaborative culture, she says. When faculty attend conferences, they return and give a presentation to the others about what they learned in the hopes of enhancing everyone’s knowledge base.

Engaging through practice

No matter what advice or training for teaching on camera is provided, it takes a little time for faculty to get used to the process. For example, says Texas Tech’s Tapp, the camera can be off-putting and awkward at first. Not being able to see students and spot those who are looking puzzled or who are nodding their heads in agreement during a lecture makes it more difficult to adapt the lecture to meet the needs of all.

For that reason, frequency of message is even more important in online content delivery, emphasizes Tapp. Rather than lengthy lectures from a talking head, mix up the teaching with a larger quantity of shorter lessons that require the student to respond in some way. That is the essence of engagement.

Marcia Layton Turner is a Pittsford, N.Y.-based writer.


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