You Can’t Capture Learning With a Camera

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Rhett Allain, an associate professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University and a blogger for Wired, says he’s noticed students doing something new in his lectures lately: taking pictures.

“You look up at the class and there they are. Students with their phones out. Either taking a picture of the question slide you just asked, or video recording the solution.”

Allain says he doesn’t mind, but he wonders: “Why are they recording stuff (either with pictures or movies)? What is there to record? If they record the ‘answers’ to questions, I think they are missing the most important thing—the process.

It all comes down to purpose of the class. If the goal of the class is to distribute information from the instructor to the students, then I think every single student should bring a camera to class. However, in this case, wouldn’t it just be easier for me to post all my presentation slides or videos of solutions online? Would we even really need to meet in person anyway?

I believe that the class is more than just about giving certain ‘pieces’ of information. Instead, class is more like basketball practice. I am the coach and the students are the players. The goal of physics class is to become better at physics. So, in class we practice physics. We work on problems, we share ideas and we look at interesting questions.

In this case, what would a picture or video do? Maybe a student wants to save a problem to look back at it later. I get that. But if they are saving the problem so that they can ‘know’ that one piece of information, they are going about it the wrong way.

Would it be a good idea to video record LeBron James as a means of getting better at basketball? Well, a video recording by itself won’t help. A video recording along with practice might help—but practice is the most important part.” (Read more here.)

I’ve never heard of students doing this—have you? (Though I do remember classmates taking pictures of the paintings we were supposed to familiarize ourselves with for an art history course in college.) In any case, Allain’s take seems exactly right—a picture or a video of the professor won’t help students nearly as much as actively participating and practicing in class.

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10 Responses to “You Can’t Capture Learning With a Camera”

  1. Leslie says:

    I teach at a university in Chile and my students do this too. If I’ve posted a complicated diagram on a slide, I’m not surprised that they want to take pictures. I see people doing this at business events too. But I’m also bothered by the non-interactive and non-critical nature of taking photos like this. If you take notes by hand, you interpret the material in the process, and the same might be true with fine art photography. But a smartphone snapshot, taken enough times to make sure at least one comes out non-blurry? Not so much.

  2. Kristin says:

    I see this at conferences, not in my college classrooms. Usually, they are trying to quickly capture a diagram or other slide deck content.

  3. Scott Rutherford (@srlean6) says:

    You can capture learning with a camera if the learning is experiential. What is described is passing information and not an exploration and intent for deep understanding of the concepts. The student is trying to capture the experience. I would argue that both parties failed, the students and the professor as it relates to learning.

  4. simon says:

    Perhaps one should ask the students if it helps them to THEIR goals for the class…depending on the level of course and the importance physics plays in their educational goals, then the capturing and memorization of information may be behind all the photo taking.

    It may be that a desire for the right answer and thus better grades drives the behavior as opposed to the desire of “getting better at physics”.

  5. Robert says:

    It would probably be a good idea if Professor Allain and others like him did somehow make their slides available to their students as a general rule. That way they would n’t have to fiddle with their phones during the lecture and could concentrate on what the professor was saying. Electronically taping a lecture is much easier to do in an unobtrusive manner. Ideally students wouldn’t have to do either but would have both slides and audio available so they could review the lecture later.

  6. Jim says:

    I regularly took photos of the board while pursuing my doctorate in 2008. I was the only one in my class who did this but then again I’ve always found paying attention to the material while it was being presented by the instructor was far more important than frantically making notes or copying diagrams.

    In short, taking pictures or recording while material is being presented is useless. Taking pictures after the material has been presented, very useful.

  7. When I was in med school (the late 90s), there was a note taking service which would reproduce the professor’s slides and provide annotations based on content. This responsibility rotated through the class. This way, you know that you could relax and really listen (or miss a class) without frantically taking down every word and diagram.

    I do think that professors making slides (or at least diagrams) readily available is helpful. I always provide these items when I am giving a talk.

    Finally, I would say that that there are many electronic note taking programs allow insertion of photos into student notes (e.g. Notebook by Circus Ponies). The photo taking may simply be part of a student’s strategy.

  8. anniempaul says:

    You know, after reading a bunch of responses to my original post, I’ve changed my mind. I can see how snapping a picture of a diagram or a complicated equation or an involved piece of information for later reference could be very helpful, reducing the load on one’s working memory and allowing one to stay involved in the class instead of getting distracted by trying to get it all down.

  9. Andrew nielsen says:

    Professor wonders this, wonders that. Solution: ask.

    One brain. Two ears.

  10. Gary says:

    Maybe the process of writing stuff down can help you remember it, and maybe even understand it, better.

    I’m not sure “remembering stuff” is the point of education any more… There are just too many ways to recall stuff that don’t require memory. But taking a picture might short-circuit the process of understanding a bit.

    At the same time, taking a picture of something that emerged during class (the solution on a whiteboard for instance) might actually activate the memory of the processes that occurred during class. The extra context (quite literally, the background noises or questions on a video, or the other things that were on the whiteboard, or even the back of the other students’ heads!) might help “reconstruct” the class experience in a way that helps recall the concepts. I would think that would be enormously helpful in class. I always hated taking exams in rooms other than the original classroom for that reason: the answers I wanted were in the clock on the wall, or the stain on the floor, but I wasn’t in the right room so I couldn’t find them!

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