I hate recording class, but I’m doing it from now on.

Have you ever sent this email?

I’m sorry to hear that you’re not feeling well. We’ll mark you as present. Please get notes from a classmate. Hope you feel better soon!

I must have sent it hundreds of times over 24 years of teaching. But I think that approach is over. As a side effect of the pandemic, I’ve learned how to stream/record my lectures, and I plan to do it for the rest of my teaching career.

I hate streaming/recording lectures. The tech distracts me from focusing on the students in the room. And it worries me. I worry about saying something wrong, and having it thrown back at me later. If I make a mistake while teaching I always try to correct it, but being memorialized on video makes a mistake feel worse. I worry about being quoted out of context by someone deliberately trying to make me look bad. I worry about how I look.

I worry about being critical of work I’m teaching and having that get back to the work’s author. If I say in class, “Your textbook doesn’t do a good job of explaining issue X, so I want to clarify…” will that then get back to the textbook author, who is a friend at another university? If I’m in a graduate class and critique a research paper, does that get back to the researcher? I’m always careful about what I say, and work to be as politically neutral in class as possible. But I teach controversial subject matter like race and technology, and recording those discussions is scary.

Scary for me, and scary for the students, who should feel comfortable saying something not yet fully formed in their minds and not being held accountable for it in the future. Our class recordings are not downloadable and are only for current students in the class — but you can get around that with low production values (pointing another camera at the screen) easily or with good-quality production values with some knowledge and effort. Can you imagine if someone could hack into old video archives and find every dumb thing a politician said in class as an undergraduate?

With all that said, why am I planning to record my lectures from now on? The answer is: germs and incentives. I know that as a student if I had a scratchy throat (“Am I about to get sick? I’m not sure”) I would often still go to class. Getting notes from a classmate is just not the same as hearing the lecture yourself. We are incentivizing students to tough it out and come — and spread germs. We need to redesign our incentive system, permanently. Even if it’s nothing more than a mild cold, the right thing to do is to keep your germs to yourself. If we can make it easier for students to make that decision, we can keep us all healthier. I’m not talking about pandemic times — even when there is no unusual infectious disease spreading, we all still get colds and flu, and need to do a better job of not spreading them.

My recording this semester is what I call a “low effort” recording. I am focusing my attention on students in the room. I find that I am a worse teacher if I split my attention too much. But the recording is still better than nothing, and it makes it easier for students to choose to stay home when they should.

The problem I haven’t resolved yet is how to get students to come in person when they are well. I believe attending in person is better — particularly if there is in-class discussion. Video breakout groups and text chat just aren’t as good. Some of my students are watching the livestream because they are immunocompromised or live with people who are, and would like to lower their Covid risk. That’s great. But others just got in the habit of attending remotely and prefer it. Attending remotely is less time and effort. There are better snacks. I get it. Going forwards, I wonder how I can encourage more students to choose to attend in person, when they are feeling well.

A second challenge is how to tell if you are well. Unfortunately, the day when you have your first hint of a symptom is often the day you are most contagious. My allergies are brutal, and I sometimes can’t tell if I’m sick or just reacting to the pollen. After being genuinely sick, it can be hard to know when it’s safe to come in again. Someday I hope we have better at-home medical testing kits that can let you know if you have anything contagious. And that we normalize wearing a mask when prudent, even when general mask wearing has become a thing of the past.

I hope that research in human-computer interaction and educational technology can help mitigate some of the privacy risks of class recordings, for both students and faculty. Because after 18+ months experience with recording class, saying “get notes from a classmate” seems pretty lame. I’m recording class from now on.

I do research on social media, including online collaboration, social movements, and online moderation and harassment.