Teaching with Twitch (Or: How to Livestream Your Lectures Without University Support)

Last week I livestreamed both of my university lectures. I conducted the lectures from home while students watched (and followed along live) from campus or their own homes. I’ll give you a brief account of how I did it (the tech side), then an account of how it went, then some key takeaways.

How I Did It

Most universities support online classes in some form or another. However, I quickly discovered that if you’re teaching a traditional course and you want to livestream a single class, your options are limited. I don’t say this to downplay the media service available at my university (they’re incredible and were very helpful in suggesting tools I could explore on my own), just to say – sometimes if you want to be innovative, you have to come up with solutions yourself.

The layout of a typical Twitch stream, with the desktop appearing full screen and a small webcam capture appearing in the top or bottom right corner.

The layout of a typical Twitch stream, with the desktop appearing full screen and a small webcam capture appearing in the top or bottom right corner.

There are a variety of options for livestreaming your lectures. Most made-for-education livestreaming options cost money, either for your institution, yourself, or your students. I have a strong aversion to spending money, so that wasn’t an option for me.

Luckily, I already had a livestreaming solution set up. Twitch is a livestreaming platform designed for gamers. At any given time, you’ll find thousands (upon thousands) of young people streaming their gaming sessions. The livestreams are called “channels”  and you can search channels by the game being played. To give you an idea of how popular this platform you’ve never heard of is, right now (at 10:20am EST on a Wednesday), there are:

  • Over 87,000 people watching live streams of League of Legends
  • Over 38,000 people watching live streams of Dota 2
  • Over 35,000 people watching live streams of Hearthstone

The top 10 games alone (and there are a LOT more than 10 games being live-streamed right now) have a combined audience of well over 200,000 viewers. On a Wednesday. At 10:30am. Woah.

Anyway, for us non-gamers in the room, Twitch simply allows you to livestream whatever is currently on your desktop as well as a webcam simultaneously, online. All you need is a free account, and all your students need is a link. It’s that simple.

Students were instructed to go to my Twitch page at the time of class, and also open their LectureTools (which displays the slides and allows them to ask me questions and take notes, among other things). Then, I simply flipped through the PPT on my computer and talked through my headset to present the material. I ran it exactly as I would a normal lecture, including asking students to submit answers through LectureTools, conducting activities, and so on.

The Reaction

When you try something new, you expect it to fail. Amazingly, this didn’t. The technology worked relatively seamlessly and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Almost 90% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they enjoyed the lecture, and 90% of students said they wanted to try another online lecture (of the same format) before the semester ends.

Positive feedback included:

  • Liked the fact that they didn’t have to go all the way to campus
  • Still felt very ‘connected’  to the professor and fellow students
  • Minimal technological problems (“everything went so smoothly!”)
  • Liked “trying something different”, “mixing it up”

Negative feedback included:

  • More easily distracted while at home (distractions cited include boyfriends, roommates, Facebook and food)
  • Didn’t like the “random trolls” on Twitch (more on this in the next section)
  • Advertisements would display periodically over the lecture

Key Takeaways

I am going to write another blog post in a couple of days about the big-picture of livestreaming classes and the potential of that tool. However, for now I will focus more on ‘tips’ if you’d like to try livestreaming your lecture, particularly if you’re using Twitch:

  1. Plan less content. The pace of an online class is slightly different. It didn’t “feel” slow, yet I was able to cover less content than I expected, and had to rush through some material that I had planned. In future, I would plan to cover less content in an online session than I would in an in-person session.
  2. Trolls will be trolls. Most free live-streaming sites don’t give you the option of creating a “private”  stream (again, unless you pay for a premium account). As a result, anybody who is browsing twitch could potentially find your stream and follow along with your lecture. As a strong believer in free education, I love this idea. However, several of my students didn’t appreciate the jokes and questions (and occasional trolly behaviours) from random Twitch users in my chat.
  3. Have the students sign up for an account. I gave my students the option of signing up for a free Twitch account, or simply watching without an account. Having an account has two benefits: no ads playing over the stream, and the ability to engage in live chat. While the students had other ways to reach me, the live chat was by far the most effective means of communication while streaming.
  4. Set your bitrate to 1000 (max). With Twitch, you can manually change your bitrate. The higher the bitrate, the higher the quality of the stream. Your only limit in terms of how high you set this number is your own upload speed. However, the higher the quality of the stream, the more likely it is to cause problems for people watching who have slow download speeds. Only 2 or 3 students mentioned this being a problem, but those who did found it very frustrating. As a compromise, setting a middle-of-the-road bitrate of approx. 1000 is likely to balance quality with accessibility.
  5. The importance of a moderator. I had a moderator / tech support guru on my livestream with me. Whenever I experienced issues, or the students experienced issues, he was able to help. There weren’t many issues to resolve, but still, it was comforting knowing I had somebody there.
  6. Don’t get too attached to one tool. Here’s the bad news about Twitch – TECHNICALLY speaking you’re only allowed to use it to stream gaming and gaming-related things. I could go on one day to find out that my account’s been suspended because of this breach of the user agreement. In many ways, though, it doesn’t matter. In this quickly evolving digital environment, it never pays to get too attached at any one tool anyway. There are numerous tools that can achieve the same result, it’s just a matter of finding one that works for you and trying it, all the while being aware that you may need to find another tool eventually.

As I said, these are just some specific ‘how to’ tips, but I will be blogging within a few days about the big picture takeaways of livestreaming for education.

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