Using Videos to Help Learners
The media attention garnered by Khan Academy has inspired considerable debate about the efficacy of using videos to help learners. Some have taken criticism of Khan’s videos (such as this well-reasoned piece from Frank Noschese) as equal to saying videos are incapable of helping students learn. Sal Khan has personally commented on the subject, and at one point challenges others to post better videos. He also gets a little testy later on in the comments, suggesting directly that his critics think video is useless as a learning medium. Yet I think it’s what happens in the video that is important. The fact that video is the medium is quite secondary. The secondary nature of the medium is totally lost on most of the fawning press Khan Academy gets. “It’s video! OMG! It’s a revolution!” Yes. Gag.
I think video can be useful for helping learners. I’d like to set forth here how, when and why I use video (or want to use it more… I’m pretty new at this).
I mark up student work like everybody else. That is, I give written feedback. I am often unsatisfied with my own written feedback, because 1) my writing is messy, 2) the page gets crowded, 3) I am too impatient to fully explain what the student is missing and 4) I suspect my written feedback is often not studied by my students. An alternative that I have used is to write only very limited feedback, scan the student work, then make a quick screencast, pointing at the mistake on the scanned document with my voice-over expounding on what has gone wrong. I can even ask questions of the student, rather than just give the correct answer.
Why do all this when my students and I live nearly on top of each other? The reason is I can quickly knock out four or five short screencasts in the evening before bed or in the morning before class in about the same time it would take to set up a series of short conversations with the kids. And the students tend to watch the videos and then ask really good questions later. These videos do not replace the student-teacher interaction, they make it simpler and often make it deeper when the face-to-face happens.
I make short videos showing how to do things like redrawing a vector with its tail on the tail of another vector, reproducing the magnitude and direction accurately using a protractor. Simple, right? Anyone should be able to do that. At least that’s what I thought until I realized many students were flailing around, unable to translate words and still pictures into action. I’m getting ready to make a video showing students how to use a scale on the page to measure the magnitude of a vector. And how to use a protractor correctly. These are all things that I want my students to be able to do on the summer homework I just sent them. Without the videos, I know that I get a lot more confusion and less learning, just because some very simple steps have not been explained. Sure most would figure it out by themselves, and most actually will! This is a back-up plan for the minority that need it.
How are these videos different from Khan Academy videos? They are different because they closely match the way I want to teach vectors. They are not designed to give any deeper understanding about vectors, they are designed to address small steps that are fairly mechanical in nature. The videos are customized to my style to a degree that a video made for millions can’t be. And the subject matter is chosen to address small problems that I know students will have, based on my in-class experience.
Once this past year, a student had a problem that I didn’t have time to address. She had forgotten how to use scientific notation and this was holding her back. She had learned scientific notation before, but was rusty. I sent her to Khan Academy (even though I cringed a bit at the way negative exponents were explained). Here is what I consider a legitimate use of Khan Academy videos: the student already knows the content, but needs a refresher. If the student were learning scientific notation for the first time, I would not want to present the algorithmic approach that Khan uses (even though he claims to “explain the why,” I find most of his videos very much “do this, then do that” algorithms with little meaning), but for my student who needed a quick refresher, this was the quickest way for her to get it. If I had an extra thirty minutes that day (and they coincided with her extra thirty minutes), a live session with me would have been better, but we got the job done with the help of Sal Khan.
Occasionally I make a longer video (or pen-cast) that shows me walking through a tough problem. I do this so the students have a model of solid problem-solving that they can review as many times as they want. I emphasize that just watching a video (or a live lecture) of a problem being solved by someone else will not result in understanding. But the video gives the students a way of getting immediate feedback when I’m not around. This is how we achieve deep practice if I’m not actually in the same room as them.
Can Khan Academy provide this kind of video? I guess it could, but it doesn’t. Maybe it can’t. My problem-solving videos may only work for students who start their solutions from fundamental principles and then move to a determination of what models apply. Other teachers use different approaches… I wouldn’t suggest students outside my school would get a great deal from my videos. Maybe they could, but I won’t insist they could. My students get to where they can understand my videos by developing their own understanding in the lab. If a student went from Sal Khan’s kinematics lectures to my problem-solving videos, I’m pretty sure they would be confused.
Flipping the Classroom:
More on this later, but I haven’t figured out how to do the flipped classroom all that often. I use Modeling Instruction, where the students are already doing in class what proponents of the flipped classroom are advocating. The uses of video mentioned above do save some class time, but it’s not as if I’m giving video homework every night. Or even once a week. I think of using video as a way to be more efficient. Maybe there’s more… I’ll work on it. I am gradually using video more and more, though.
Do you have more ways of using video? Leave a comment!