Lecturing in Leipzig
Well today I finished all the filming for my series of Epidemiology lectures, which were commissioned and produced by the Lecturio corporation in Leipzig, Germany.
The company has an interesting online educational model. They recruit experts from around the world, and asks them to create a course based on their expertise, and that might be relevant to their identified market. In my case, Epidemiology is a core component to the USMLE licencing process, so we based my content on those specific needs.
The expert puts together PowerPoint slides, which the Lecturio graphics team enhances with great artistic flair. As well, the company’s educational expert works with the expert (me) to make sure that each lecture follows a consistent paedagogical pattern, and is designed to be as engaging as possible to the online viewer.
Did I do a good job? I have no idea. I guess we’ll find out when the videos go live in a few weeks.
Some have asked me how the process differs from regular live lecturing. Well, first, video recording requires the controlled environment of a video studio, which means that the “performer” has to give up a lot of freedoms that we take for granted.
One such freedom is wardrobe. Since I was filmed in front of a green screen, there were some colours and patterns I could not wear. I played it safe and stuck with black:
Also for satisfying the voracious green screen gods, my normally unkempt hair was matted down so I looked like a fashion-backward news anchor:
You will probably notice from the photo above that they caked my face with an inch of makeup, so that my greasy skin wouldn’t give the camera a seizure. The lovely makeup artist, Jenny, was also one of the graphic artists who did such a splendid job making my slides look interesting. Here are the two of us along with another fantastic Lecturio employee who was one of my assigned “performance monitors” (that’s what I call her; she was one of the people who would watch my lectures and listen for content inconsistencies or pacing problems):
The lectures are delivered much like they would be in a classroom. I, the lecturer, control when the slide is advanced by pressing a clicker, and I talk over the visuals without using a script. It’s all improvised in order to produce a more human, organic feel.
Here’s a pic of me in the studio, with Tobias, the director, in the background:
The challenging part is avoiding the realization that one is talking to oneself. Once this realization sets in, the sudden self-consciousness can pull you out of the moment and you can lose your train of thought, or, worse, you can start resorting to just reading off of the slides.
I’m one of those teachers who enjoys the Socratic method, meaning that I question my students and let their answers guide the lecture. You can’d do that when you’re the only person in the room. This can be profoundly off-putting unless you’re either psychologically well-prepared or, like me, an egotist.
Throughout the lectures, I had to stare directly into the camera and pretend that I was addressing a sole, invisible student. There was a beveled screen that allowed me to see the slides while looking into the camera. Unfortunately, I could not consult notes or look away from the camera at any time. So it was more of a performance than a traditional lecture. I think this would make a lot of teachers a tad uncomfortable.
Because the recording was done in a sound studio, a lot of care had to be taken to avoid extraneous noises. The rustling of my collar against my face, the hum of the air conditioner, or, more problematic, a siren passing on the street below, would cause us to cease recording and start anew. Again, I think these sorts of constraints would be a source of stress for many lecturers.
Appearances were also important. We had to interrupt filming, in mid-lecture, every few minutes to re-apply my makeup, flatten my hair, or (most commonly) adjust my tie. Can’t have the so-called “expert” looking sloppy!
But by far the most challenging aspect of the performance is the limitations placed upon my movement. Like a lot of lecturers, I keep my brain active by moving my limbs. Due to the need to project content on the green screen behind me, there was a narrow box of space in which my body was allowed to gesticulate, and my feet could never move from one designated space. Most importantly, while I was encouraged to use hand gestures, I could not indicate items on the slides (since those would only be added in post-production), nor could I move my hands outside of the lines of my body.
If you’ve ever lectured, you may be aware that having to think about so many constraints simultaneously can sometimes be both exhausting and detrimental to the quality of the content.
But I persevered. If I did a good job, I owe it entirely to the Lecturio staff. I am so very impressed by the German work ethic and, if these people are indicative of the country as a whole, of the German technical skill set and welcoming attitude. It was a genuine joy to be in their presence, and they did such a wonderful job making me feel comfortable and appreciated.
Having experimented with online education myself, I have concluded that it is best handled by the private sector. They have the resources and motivation to leverage public sector expertise to produce a truly compelling project.
In other news, I dropped by the Stasi museum today. I thought this photo was particularly disturbing. Now I’m afraid of Abba:
And last night, I took a midnight stroll through this 1000 year old city. It really is quite beautiful, with cobblestoned streets and fascinating architecture:
One of the Lecturio employees, who has lived her all her life, theorized that since the GDR (East German government) was not interested in upgrading infrastructure, much of the original medieval architecture was preserved. And since unification, when Leipzig entered the Western free market, those old buildings became unexpected, beautiful tourist beacons.
Here is a taste of Leipzig, via two minutes of video I filmed while walking to my hotel:
I have to say, I really like Germany and the German people, even the German food! German art? Not so much. I have no idea what this thing is supposed to represent:
As this was my last night in Leipzig (I leave for Berlin tomorrow), I took another late night stroll. The city closes down early. I found myself sitting in front of Thomaskirche in the dark, listening to the church organist practice for tomorrow’s concerts.
This was the organ that was once played by Bach, across the street from the home of Bach himself, in the town that celebrates all things Bach. With all the filming I’ve been doing this week, I hadn’t really taken much time to think deeply about the historical relevance of this town. But it really does run deeply. For a moment, I could close my eyes and imagine the scene 250 years ago. The streets are the same, as are the buildings. And so is the music.
All right. Time to down my very cheap glass of wine and head to bed!
In Dec, 2015, I gave 25 of my 4th year Epidemiology students access to the Lecturio videos as part of a study on the videos’ paedagogical utility. Some of them posted pics of them “enjoying” the videos. Here they are: