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Education Commentary

Passive to Active: The Use and Misuse of Video

By Richard P. Lookatch — November 11, 1992 6 min read

Interviewer: Briefly describe your experience using videotapes in class.

Teacher: I’ve used in the neighborhood of 200 video programs since I started teaching. Some pretty good ones. The kids really seem to like them. They’re a nice break from the usual classroom activities. I think my students are getting a lot out of them.

Interviewer: What do you think of the video programs you’ve seen in class this year?

Student: I’ve seen quite a few. I’m trying to think of a good one. Um, there was this one on science that was pretty good. I can’t remember what it was about but it had these really cool kids in it. They’d go and research all this stuff. I liked watching all the tapes though.

There are some profound questions we must ask ourselves when we reflect on the use of instructional video in the classroom. Estimates of access to video by school teachers are as high as 98 percent and any one teacher can easily locate thousands of educational video programs. Hardware is inexpensive and available, and titles plentiful. But has integration of media and curriculum ever really occurred? Has video been effectively interwoven with what and how we are teaching?

In many schools, the answer, sadly, is no. The following thoughts offer some clues to why this is so--and a few suggestions for what can be done about it:

  • “Watching a movie’': How often have students heard a teacher say, “Now we’re going to watch a movie on ...’' The typical student reaction? Stretching, relaxing, becoming ensconced in his or her chair. As the “movie’’ ends, students look as if they have just been awakened from a deep sleep. A general lethargy pervades the classroom. The teacher asks, “How does what we just watched relate to ...?’' And there is dead silence as students fumble with their notes, hoping to avoid eye contact and the necessity of responding.

Why does this happen? Simply stated, the teacher has relied on the entertainment or emotional content of the video to teach and has failed to make watching the video an active experience. Instruction must be active to be effective. The key to effective use of educational video is to derive some level of interactivity among video, instructor, and learner. To do this, the teacher must become a medium between the class and the video, bringing life to a third facet of the experience--interaction.

  • Passive to active video. Few teachers have ever shown a videotape to students without follow-up questions or attempts at discussion. Far less common, however, is the use of advance questions. Advance questions can reap many benefits. They set learning objectives for the students, identify gains in knowledge that are available, put priorities on the video’s content, elevate attention levels, and make participation in post-program learning activities easier by letting students know in advance what contributions will be expected of them.

Effective video utilization means preparing and presenting discussion questions in advance of the viewing. Then, after the program, conducting a structured or round-robin discussion, holding each student accountable for some level of contribution. “Watching,’' therefore, is simply not enough.

  • Case studies. Another readily available tool for enhancing video presentations is the use of video-based vignettes (dramatic illustrative scenes) as case studies. Vignettes can be used while viewing the tape in its entirety, or they can be used totally independent of the surrounding material. For example, I once used a segment of a tape on fork-lift repair as a case study in human relations. Unknown to the producer of the program, a scene depicted a supervisor inappropriately instructing a mechanic on a particular repair procedure. While my students had no interest in fork-lift repair, the scene illustrated a common flaw in human relations: telling subordinates what’s wrong with their work as opposed to what’s right.

As research has demonstrated, students learn best when they are exposed to contrasts between the appropriate and the inappropriate, so long as cues are initially present. Dramatic vignettes offer the potential of illustrating both the exemplary and the undesirable--and of infusing the lesson with Socratic energy and vitality.

  • The mechanics of interactivity. As V.C.R. technology advances, a once-impossible function is now available: freeze frame. Although classroom players limit the amount of time a video segment can be frozen, in many cases, a moment or two may be long enough to discuss a particular scene or graphic.

In some cases, teachers find that video programs contain segments of little, if any, value to the students. At other times, a particular discussion warrants the integration of a specific section of a video. Use of tape counters and cuing tapes before teaching expedite the location or skipping of program segments and maximize real time on task.

  • Videos as assessment devices? With recent concerns over traditional forms of testing, and focus on “portfolio’’ approaches to assessment, the “video case study’’ approach provides an essential assessment component. Use of a video segment as an assessment tool would allow teachers to test students’ ability to apply learned facts or skills in a real-life context. As with other assessment devices, however, video assessment would have to be executed in the spirit of sound pedagogy.
  • Video Socrates. The arrival in classrooms of interactive videodisk (the optical disk variety) brings with it many new opportunities for enhancing existing curricula--without many of the dangers inherent in videotape programs.

One of the most significant contributions of interactive videodisk is the elimination of video as a potentially passive medium. Well-designed interactive videodisk is by its very nature Socratic, in that the technology inherently provides and requires dialogue--automatically, as part of the presentation. Dialogue, controlled through a barcode reader, remote-control device, or keyboard, takes the form of narrator questioning, direction of characters in a vignette, or responses to a variety of video prompts and options. Participants, whether in group or individually, are afforded interaction opportunities every one to two minutes. They may also randomly access any spot on a videodisk within a second or two. These and other “bells and whistles’’ provide teachers and students with excellent tools for the fine-tailoring of video content.

Not even such highly structured features as these, however, eliminate the need for curricular integration. In contrast to the words of many hardware salespeople, interactive videodisk is not a teaching panacea.

The utility of video in instruction is profound. Video provides students with contextual, real-world application of print or lecture-based materials; it creates the context called for in curriculum standards for most subject areas. It also can allow students to gain hands-on experience with tasks or activities that might be too dangerous or impractical for normal classroom protocol, for example, hazardous science experiments.

Soon we will see a proliferation of “living textbooks’’ containing annotated barcodes used to drive interactive videodisk segments that correspond with specific textual passages. While such efforts at “bringing textbooks to life’’ are clearly teaching-tool breakthroughs, they remain tools, mandating proper use by skilled craftspeople.

Research has consistently demonstrated a positive correlation between learning gains from video simulations and the degree of instructional interactivity involved. In addition to learning gains, studies also indicate significantly improved attitudes and satisfaction among students when they are actively involved in video presentations.

The vast selection of high-quality videotapes, interactive videodisks, and (in the near future) “living textbooks’’ presents unlimited opportunities for teachers to substantially improve student outcomes. It is clear, however, that videos are of full value only when they are effectively integrated into the lesson. Interactive video systems--and videos rendered active through curricular integration--substantially increase our chances of providing each student with a well-rounded learning experience.

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 1992 edition of Education Week as Passive to Active: The Use and Misuse of Video