Recording your lectures 2: the one thing you can do to improve your recording experience

Tl;dr: record in segments of 5-10 minutes. Never record a full class’ worth of material in a single take.

That’s the short version, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

Slightly longer summary:

  1. Plan your class as you would normally (making whatever adjustments you make for it being online).
  2. Using the plan, record 5-10 minute segments of your lecture. Label each one clearly in terms of what it covers.
  3. Before you record, make a test recording to make sure levels are good and there isn’t a bunch of room echo. Use a test phrase. I always say “testing, testing, sibilance, sibilance, plosives, plosives. I love kittens, yes I do, I love kittens, how ’bout you?” (I am not kidding.). Then listen back and make sure it’s clear. That’s the only thing you will audition in its entirety.
  4. Record your first segment. Only stop if you really spectacularly embarrass yourself. When done, spot check it to make sure it sounds ok. Label it and save it in the right place so you don’t record over it.
  5. Record your next segment….etc.
  6. When done, upload your segments for your students. Make sure they are properly labelled, and make the order is clear.

Details:

In the first instalment of this series, I focused on modifying your recording space as the most important factor in improving the sound of your lectures. In this instalment, I focus on how you will spend your time recording them. How very Cartesian of me.

(the next instalment will discuss addressing your students and performance factors)

People prepare differently for lecture courses when they are in a classroom. Some lecture from a script, some work from notes, some build an elaborate lesson plan. Some build it all into a slide ware presentation using PowerPoint or Keynote. I’ve been a “notes-with-quotes and stage directions” guy, so I walk into class with something like a chart of what I want to cover, but there is lots of room for spontaneity.

Think in terms of adding components together, rather than dividing up your time: However you prepare, once you’re in the classroom, it’s a block of time that is subdivided. You experience it that way, and your students more or less experience it that way (just add some boredom and distraction into the mix).

For an online class, you need to think in terms of addition rather than division. It’s not that you are dividing, e.g., 80 minutes into small units, it is that you are making smaller units that add up to 80 minutes. The pedagogy people will tell you students’ attention spans wane when they have to just sit through 80 minutes of you talking, but I am concerned about you, the teacher, in this episode.

What happens if you make a big mistake 40 minutes into recording an 80 minute lecture?

In a live setting, you’d correct yourself and move on. But perhaps because it’s recorded you are now more self conscious. Now you have a dilemma: you either learn how to edit audio (a nice skill to have but in the context of all you have to do for the fall, it’s Just One More Damn Thing), or you live with it.

By building up lecture from 5-10 minute units you reduce the need to edit and audition your recordings after the fact. Think in terms of topics or ideas or examples you want to cover. Or just stop every 5-10 minutes. It also allows you to course-correct if you, like me, do not work from a script and may realize you need to explain something else in advance of what you are discussing. Now, you no longer have to record your lecture for class in the order your students will hear it.

If you are recording audio into PowerPoint, this is super easy, since you just record the audio that does with a slide. If you don’t like the audio, you redo it, but you avoid having to re-do the whole lecture.

Building up lectures also lets you work in other activities the students can do for the class meeting. In a classroom setting, I pause every 10 minutes, give or take, to ask a question, solicit feedback, or do something else like look at an image or show a clip. This is also highly recommended for online learning, though it is more fiddly.

Finally, lectures in small chunks, if they are well-labelled, means that students can find the part they need more easily when it is time to review. This saves you the trouble of marking up a longer lecture for students, or them digging through it to get the bit of information they need.

Assessing your audio recordings: I’ve heard it said that Zoom meetings are like having meetings in front of a mirror: you are constantly looking at yourself. Recording your voice is in a sense worse because you are not used to hearing yourself speak, and our heads remediate the sound of our voices, so our voices sound different to us than to anybody else. The good news: you have gotten this far in your career not listening to your lectures. You probably shouldn’t start now. Yes, you should spot-check each recording for sound (just skip around to a couple spots). You are simply making sure it is intelligible. Don’t listen to the whole thing. It’s true you might miss a problem, but if there is a huge problem, students will tell you, and that’s ok–just like in a live classroom setting.

For whether the recording is good enough, ask yourself if it is roughly of the quality of a lecture you would give in a classroom. You can stop and start, hem and haw, stumble to find the right words, have odd timing. There can be weird background noises from time to time so long as you are clear. Students hear that sort of thing all the time in a classroom. For years I lectured over the racket of 200 people typing on their laptops. People coughed, farted, munched, sipped, stirred, shifted, sneezed, and shuffled over one another. A phone would go off now and then. That’s what an undergrad lecture course is like.

You will get better at it as the semester goes along, but you are used to hearing polished audio from radio or live performance. Your goal right now is not a perfect radio show; it’s a usable, easy-to-understand lecture. Focus on that.

To recap, this is how I would recommend doing it:

  1. Plan your class as you would normally (making whatever adjustments you make for it being online).
  2. Using the plan, record 5-10 minute segments of your lecture. Label each one clearly in terms of what it covers.
  3. Before you record, make a test recording to make sure levels are good and there isn’t a bunch of room echo. Use a test phrase. I always say “testing, testing, sibilance, sibilance, plosives, plosives. I love kittens, yes I do, I love kittens, how ’bout you?” (I am not kidding.). Then listen back and make sure it’s clear. That’s the only thing you will audition in its entirety.
  4. Record your first segment. Only stop if you really spectacularly embarrass yourself. When done, spot check it to make sure it sounds ok. Label it and save it in the right place so you don’t record over it.
  5. Record your next segment….etc.
  6. When done, upload your segments for your students. Make sure they are properly labelled, and make the order is clear.

These first two instalments are all you really need to get going on recording audio for your students. But I will add additional posts on performance and technical subjects for those who want to get deeper into it.