Some thoughts on video and teaching

Satirists at The Onion take on the ubiquitous Ted Talks.

In Time Magazine, online education entrepreneur Salman Khan writes:

Each school day, millions of students move in unison from classroom to classroom where they listen to 50- to 90-minute lectures. Despite there being anywhere from 20 to 300 humans in the room, there is little actual interaction. This model of education is so commonplace that we have accepted it as a given. For centuries, it has been the most economical way to “educate” a large number of students. Today, however, we know about the limitations of the class lecture, so why does it remain the most common format?

Khan advocates for what has come to be known as the “flipped classroom”.  Instructors, he says, should remove the lecture to the online realm and split it into short chunks for students to watch on their own.  This allows instructors to dedicate classroom time to hands-on activities and other parts of education that require a human touch.  He highlights the example of “the humanities seminar, where any ‘information delivery’ happens outside the classroom through student reading, allowing class time to be entirely devoted to teacher-moderated discussion.”

I have to wonder about the equation of watching videos at home and reading to prepare for a class.  Reading, for me, is a much more active process than watching a video.  As a learner, when I read, I can decide which sections to scan/skim and which sections to spend extra time on.  I can annotate and highlight the text (even online texts) to mark sections I’ve chosen as important.  Even with modern tools that allow transcript-navigation and speeding-up or slowing down of playback, it’s much more difficult to pick and choose video content.  You never know if the next couple of minutes will contain the important stuff.

I also question Khan’s dismissal of lectures as educational tools.  The best face-to-face lectures are interactive.  They present a problem or assumption and, by asking questions and presenting evidence, build an argument or a solution.  A good lecture is not delivered, it unfolds.  (At least this is how I handled lectures when I was still teaching.  Perhaps this approach is more common in sociology.)  A well-crafted lecture DOES help learning.  It also models communication and rhetoric skills.  I’m not saying that that a lecture is the only way to deliver content.  I do think that a course made up entirely of lectures would be ineffective.

Videos have their uses, but the fetishizing of video is a problem for education, especially online education, today.  Shelley Wright shares why she has done away with her flipped classroom:  “If you think it’s only about the videos, then you have a really shallow definition of what this could be. The real power is when students take responsibility for their own learning.”

MOOCs in the model of Coursera, Udacity and edX have placed a great deal of emphasis on video lectures as a content delivery method.  People are drawn to MOOCs largely because they are taught by well-known professors at elite institutions.  The emphasis on the talking-head video content is part of this cult-of-personality approach to education.  The MOOC lectures I’ve viewed are delivered in a very old-fashioned recitation style.  And, I can’t help but notice that the most talked-about MOOCs are taught by men.

To be sure, video presents a powerful tool for education.  RSA has produced extraordinary animations that illuminate the content of important lectures.  The high production values of Big Think videos make even hour-long lectures engaging.  Youtube goddess Vi Hart is a master of the unfolding style of content delivery, unraveling mathematical mysteries with fast-narration and lots of manipulatives.  Even the ubiquitous TED talks offer up bite-size lectures on big ideas enhanced by images, metaphors and props.  What all of these videos have in common is the high level of rehearsal and digital production.  They make use of both technology and theater to make the videos more effective in engaging the viewers’ senses and imagination.

While MOOC videos have some nice technology wrapped around them, such as in-video quizzes on Coursera, transcript-navigation in edX and Khan Academy and the ability to speed up or slow down the videos, the production value of the videos themselves is not particularly high.  Some videos, like a few of the early Khan Academy attempts, take an purposefully unrehearsed approach, which arguably gives them an air of accessibility, as if they were narrated by a tutor sitting next to you.  Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig adopted this narrated pencast style in their Artificial Intelligence MOOC, which started the great MOOC wave of 2012.  The MOOCs that have followed (I’ve signed up for and viewed videos in half a dozen of them) are  taking an old-wine in new-bottles approach to video, recording a talking-head, or WORSE, a narrated powerpoint.  For the most part, these recordings embody the worst elements of the lecture, with the exception that they are mercifully short.

Over the last two weeks, I have been exploring online courses to learn computer programming.  This is one of my goals for the next year.  Since the Mechanical MOOC hasn’t started yet, I signed myself up for MITx 6.00x: Introduction to Computer Science and Programming.  I’ve also watched the first few videos of the Coursera MOOC “An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python” offered by Rice University professors.

The MITx class videos have three elements:

– a talking head
– scribbling on powerpoint slides
– live coding in IDLE, a programming environment for Python

The talking head stuff is ok.  Dr. Grimson is cool and has a friendly face.  I think these enhance the experience, though the production value is no higher than the average vlog.

The scribbling is not very helpful, though it is an improvement over static powerpoint.  There have been occasional errors on the slides and instead of replacing the video, they have added errata below the video box, along with a copy of the slides, etc.  Not bad, not great.

The resolution of the live coding sessions is so low that you really can’t read the text.  Even worse, most of the action takes place at the bottom of the screen and is obscured by the closed captioning, which you can’t turn off, apparently.  This makes it pretty difficult to follow along.  They’ve added links to the source code so that you can view these in IDLE, but it makes the whole thing more like a podcast than video instruction.

The intro video to the class did include some production value.  They cut to a couple of video clips of a ball falling and a light being turned on (illustrations of things Dr. Grimson was talking about).  I thought these were interesting enhancements, like an apt metaphor in a good book, but that technique has not been employed at all in the subsequent lectures.

The introductory video to Rice’s Coursera MOOC offers a little more promise.  It starts with a video of the instructional team playing rock-paper-scissors.  It shows some personality and playfulness.  The video then cuts to a talking head, which is similar to the MITx course, but seems to have better image quality.  Live-coding sessions that follow are crisp and legible.  They then show an asteroid game that students will be building as their final project.  I am not interested in game design, but I think a hint at a tangible final product would be very motivating for most students.  My first impression is that the Rice videos strike a better balance between production value and accessibility to the viewer.

Except for the Rock-paper-scissors game, the Rice videos are of the talking-head or narration variety.  I think this is a rather limiting take on teaching.  It’s the sage on the (virtual) stage model.  My colleague Jenny Browne has enrolled herself in the Coursera Modern Poetry class taught by UPenn’s Al Filreis.  She reports that the course videos in that class have taken a very different approach.

When I clicked on the first video, I expected to see a talking head talking about a poem.  Instead, the “lectures”–and there is one for every poem on the syllabus–are small 10-20 minute close-readings conducted by Filreis and the course T.A.s.  These T.A. are like the smart kids in the room, and one could argue that passively watching them have a rigorous and thoughtful discussion is preferable to participating in a lame discussion inside a “real” classroom.  These bite-sized models of learning in action strike me as an element of online education that could be adapted to a PUI in a number of interesting ways.

By recording conversations about poems, Filreis highlights the humanities-seminar approach to learning.  In this approach, learning is a group process; Understanding is arrived at through an exchange of views.  Though the viewer can’t participate in this particular conversation, it serves to model this type of learning and demystifies humanities scholarship in a valuable way.

A few Google Hangouts I have viewed have a similar vibe.  Hangouts are limited to ten participants, but Hangouts on Air can be watched live by thousands.  Listening in on smart people talking is quite enlightening.  I think there is extraordinary potential for education in Hangout-like uses of video, both for synchronous (on-air) and asynchronous (watch-later) strategies.  Here’s a particularly compelling example, from Dan Lovejoy at Texas Tech University, The Online Face-to-Face Classroom.

I am indebted to a conversation with Laura Gibbs for the inspiration to write this post.


About Claudia Scholz

Higher education professional in Atlanta, GA specializing in faculty development and research administration.
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One Response to Some thoughts on video and teaching

  1. Interesting post. Enjoyed the first video. Unfortunately the link to the second video seems to be broken or is not openly available. As you mention the 2012 MOOC wave, not the connectivist MOOCs seem to be primarily talking heads, a interactive applet, and narrated PowerPoint, and the grading is based on an honor system. It can be valuable but is there enough social presence and interaction. Then again there is little interaction in many lecture halls.

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