Handling the Uber-Large Lecture: An Interview With John DeNero

by Rita-Marie Conrad, PhD

What do you do when course enrollments more than quadruple over 3 years and outgrow any existing lecture hall?  That was the quandary facing the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) Department in CS61A - Introduction to Computing course.  Enrollments went from being over 500 in 2011 to the current 1200, which is approximately 5% of the undergraduate enrollment.  Students attend lecture for 3 hours and then 3 hours of lab.  When the numbers kept rising, it became evident that no single lecture hall had the needed capacity.  Two lecture halls could be scheduled but availability and scheduling would still be an issue. 

Professor John DeNero settled it a different way – by lecturing twice:  once in the lecture hall and once in his office with using his laptop’s video camera, an upgraded microphone, and Camtasia software that he downloaded for $50.  He broke his in-class lectures by topic and recorded in 6-minute segments, giving himself breaks between each segment to keep his energy level high, with the final lecture being around 30-34 minutes. He estimates that initially it took him more time to do the videos than doing a second in-class lecture, but far less time than running two courses.  Each video is posted to YouTube prior to the in-class session and students can choose whether to attend the live lecture or to watch the video lecture. Approximately 200 students of the 1200 choose to attend the live lecture and who attends varies by the topic.  The lab portion of the course remains unchanged and all students are required to attend it. 

When asked whether he feels connected to his students, Professor DeNero replied:  “I still have connection with the small subset of students that show up to the class The people I have connection with are the ones I’d have had connection with anyhow --- the ones who would probably sit in the front and/or raise their hands to ask questions.”  And there’s lots of interaction.  In fact, he cautions that this method does not work unless the focus is on activities and not just lecture because students tend to fall behind.  “They don’t have the discipline to pace their learning.  They procrastinate and then cram the material in before the tests.  We had to adjust the lab activities to provide a 3-day lag in the lecture.  We couldn’t post the lecture one day and then have the lab the next day.”

Consider these suggestions from Professor DeNero:

1.  Put the activities front and center.  “The lectures are just there to see that the students know how to do the activities.” 

2.  There’s no one right way to do this.  You can do it yourself with simple tools or you can do it with assistance from ETS using their micro-studio (For more information see: http://ets.berkeley.edu/dms/micro-studios ) .  Per a study from Guo, Kim and Rubin (2014), it’s not necessarily the quality of the video that matters but rather the availability.

3.  Plan face-to-face course activities to accommodate the lag in student viewing of lectures.   CS61A lab activities needed to be adjusted to allow time for students to view the lecture video.  Per DeNero, “We could no longer lecture one day and expect them to do the lab activities the next day.  We now allow at least 3 days for students to view the lecture before the lab activity for that lecture.”


Philip J. Guo, Juho Kim, Rob Rubin. How Video Production Affects Student Engagement:  An Empirical Study of MOOC Videos. Learning at Scale 2014.  Retrieved January, 15, 2015 from https://groups.csail.mit.edu/uid/other-pubs/las2014-pguo-engagement.pdf .