Increasingly, colleges and universities are turning toward video lectures as a supplement or substitute for lectures in traditional classroom settings. How these are filmed and implemented will vary by university; some campuses will live-stream lectures only to students enrolled in the class, while others will record them for indefinite future use, sometimes making them available to wide audiences through platforms like Coursera or YouTube.
In any case, there are clear advantages in making video lectures available. For starters, students can watch the lecture in the comfort of their own home environment—and since they have more control over that environment, they may be able to digest the lecture with fewer distractions or more retention. Assuming the lectures are made available indefinitely, it also eliminates time restrictions; students can get involved whenever is convenient for them, allowing them to maintain their work schedules.
But when it comes down to it, are video lectures truly as effective as in-person lectures?
The Empirical Data
Multiple studies have attempted to prove, empirically, whether video lectures or in-person lectures are superior. One such study focused on an experienced professor teaching a physics course to undergraduate students. For two years, the professor video recorded all lectures for the class, and gave students the option of attending in person or watching the videos. Each experience had exactly the same content. However, students who watched the lectures rather than attending in-person were 11 percent less likely to receive a high grade. These students were also 14 percent more likely to drop the course by the end of the term.
Another study confirmed something similar. A total of 276 undergraduate students were enrolled in a Psychology course with two-hour lectures. One group of these students attended the class lectures in a live environment, while the other group only watched the videos. Both groups consumed the same core content, just in different mediums, and were presented with a short quiz about the material immediately after the lecture. Participants who attended the live version of the lecture performed much better on the memory test. Interestingly, students in both groups were also prompted during the lecture to report whether or not their mind was wandering during the last slide; you might suspect that video watchers were more inattentive, but the empirical data doesn’t support this fact.
So why would video lectures be less effective than their real-world counterparts, even when the content is identical?
There’s no clear answer, but these are some possibilities:
- Audience interest. One possible factor lies with the general interest level of students attending the lecture in person, versus those attending remotely. Setting aside the logistical hurdles that could keep a student from attending in person, a student who opts to take a lecture remotely rather than making a trip to campus may be less interested in the subject at hand than someone taking the extra time and effort. Thus, naturally, people who favor in-person lectures may have more personal interest.
- Attention. It could be assumed that video lectures, often viewed in a remote environment, are much more susceptible to distraction. Watching a lecture in your living room, with music playing in the background, makes it harder to focus than in a classroom setting. However, at least one set of study results suggest this isn’t the case.
- Engagement. An in-person experience could offer more opportunities for engagement. For example, if the professor takes questions during and immediately after the lecture, attending in person could prompt you to pay closer attention and formulate questions of your own. Students attending an in-person lecture may also respond better to nonverbal communication cues, such as body language and gestures from the professor.
- Environmental cues. There could also be environmental cues in the physical classroom that don’t exist, or aren’t as noticeable, in a video lecture. For example, seeing other students around you diligently taking notes could prompt you to take notes more diligently yourself, or could prompt you to remember more of what you’re hearing.
The truth is likely a complex composite of many or all of these factors.
Balancing Strengths and Weaknesses
Just because video and virtual classrooms aren’t as effective as in-person educational experiences doesn’t mean they need to be abandoned. They still represent a critical opportunity to reach audiences who may struggle to attend in-person classes consistently, and those attending remotely. In addition, video lectures serve as an excellent resource for live attendees looking to reinforce their knowledge or review old information. The content itself also represents a medium that is devoid of advertisements or someone trying to sell you something.
Instead, college administrators, professors, and students should seek to balance the strengths and weaknesses of this medium. Striving for a balance of physical and remote attendance, and spending extra time studying for remote courses are two immediate solutions, but there are many more options to explore.