Special Report
Classroom Technology

Digital Video Transforms Teaching Practices

By Ian Quillen — May 20, 2013 7 min read
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Perhaps no single technology has brought a more profound change to some teachers’ instructional practices than the evolution of digital video.

While the growth of online content, social networking, and multimedia production tools have all helped educators reconsider how students should consume, discuss, and demonstrate mastery of content, only the dramatic increase in video availability has led directly to the “flipped classroom” movement.

And with an increasing national focus on making more Internet bandwidth available in school and at home, there is a sense that schools are only beginning to explore video’s true educational possibilities.

Educational video, as much as any other kind of content, originates from a wide range of sources that can make selecting the best content item for a given instructor or classroom an overwhelming task, however. Even the definition of what makes a high-quality educational video has changed along with the technology that is used to record, produce, and consume one.

“Part of the challenge when you have this massive array of video resources is vetting both for the appropriateness and for the value,” said Mark Edwards, the superintendent of the 5,500-student Mooresville, N.C., school district.

“I think that’s still hit or miss,” said Mr. Edwards, whose district has earned a national reputation for its 1-to-1 computing program and achievement gains since he led a movement to embrace digital learning tools beginning half a decade ago.

Despite that hit-or-miss environment, educators in increasing numbers have been taking to the Web to find videos they deem suitable to supplement their instruction. That’s especially true of teachers who have bought into the flipped-classroom approach, in which videos are used to convey content to students outside of class so that classroom time can be used for discussion and more hands-on instruction.

Kari Arfstrom, who for the past year and a half has served as the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Flipped Learning Network, a professional-development organization, says the choices educators using the flipped model make about video utilization are more complicated than simply whether an item is of sufficient quality. There’s the question of whether to use free online resources that may be informative but not necessarily directly aligned to academic standards, or proprietary resources that are created with standards in mind but are more costly.

Kaliyah Burris- Martin works on math problems using LearnZillion with a computer in her 6th grade class at Mooresville Intermediate School in Mooresville, N.C. LearnZillion is a learning platform combining video lessons, assessments, and progress reporting.

More tech-savvy instructors are also choosing between using already available video content or creating their own with the help of free or cheap video-production mobile apps. Such a decision includes understanding whether the subject is straightforward enough for a teacher-made video to address.

“For math and science teachers, it’s pretty concrete and linear; you follow the curriculum because everything builds and scaffolds on each other,” Ms. Arfstrom said. “As an English teacher, I would never have flipped my entire English class, however, I would have flipped units.”

Further, Ms. Arfstrom pointed out, educators with more experience using the flipped approach have also begun experimenting with the chronology of lessons that include video content. While using video to introduce new concepts is still the most common tactic, she said, more educators are now choosing to use video to supplement already-learned content, or even to have students search online and report on how the videos they find build on their classroom learning.

Customizing Instruction

Meanwhile, as teachers learn new ways to inject video into their instruction, providers of that content are rethinking what makes good video at a time in which access to high-speed Internet connections and high-resolution mobile cameras is increasingly common. And whether those providers are companies that have origins in educational technology services, traditional print-textbook publishing, or video production for audiences outside of K-12 education, they are generally finding that the most functional video content doesn’t live in a vacuum.

Angel Camacho gets help from teacher Jody Cohen while working on math problems using LearnZillion in his 6th grade class at Mooresville Intermediate School. North Carolina’s Mooresville district has earned a national reputation for its computing program and digital-content development.

For example, D.J. West, a consulting manager for New York City-based McGraw-Hill Education, one of the “big three” textbook-publishing companies, said he has spent a lot of time making presentations to educators about free or affordable software programs that help teachers make their own educational videos—yet none of that software is made by McGraw-Hill Education.

The goal is to encourage teachers to then combine the resources they create with digital McGraw-Hill products that allow the teachers to curate those resources alongside content produced by the company.

“As a content provider, we really do feel we’re providing a base level of research content and then allowing you to customize,” Mr. West said. “We just see it making it easier for teachers to include it.”

Some content providers, meanwhile, have found that as more of their consumers become familiar with creating their own videos through apps and mobile devices,they are more forgiving of lower production values, as long as the informational value doesn’t lag.

“We want it to be great, don’t get me wrong,” said Susan Williams, a professional-learning designer for Atomic Learning, a company based in Little Falls, Minn., that specializes in online video tutorials for common educational technology tools. “But we also know if we want to capture someone’s story and we have to use a webcam in front of their computer, then yeah, we’ll do that.

“If the content is really good,” she said, “then the production quality is forgivable.”

It’s partly for that reason that content providers whose roots lie in video have been trying to diversify even as video as an educational resource becomes more popular.

For example, Silver Spring, Md.-based Discovery Education, which began as solely a video-streaming service, has for a handful of years been expanding its Discovery Techbook line, which features e-textbooks for science and social studies. More recent iterations of the Techbook line have been designed to ensure that users can tap its video features while also maintaining a view of interactive text or other multimedia elements.


“There are times when you certainly want to use text, and there are times when you want students putting a seed inside of a Dixie Cup and growing a tomato plant,"said Scott Kinney, a senior vice president for the company. “It’s not necessarily that video is good for one thing or another, but it’s how to make sure you utilize the breadth of resources that are available to you in the most appropriate way for the situation.”

‘Tip of the Iceberg’

Even the Khan Academy—which offers about 4,000 free educational videos on K-12 math and science topics, humanities subjects, test preparation, and other subjects—has in more recent years focused on understanding how its videos, which are credited with helping the flipped-classroom movement gain steam, are best used alongside other resources within the context of a classroom.

The nonprofit organization, based in Mountain View, Calif., has written five case studies resulting from the use of its video content in K-12 schools, as well as a library of text resources for teachers and other educators to give guidance on how to use that content effectively.

It has also analyzed the habits of its users to see what factors may lead to the most consistent progression through Khan Academy lessons.

“We probaby didn’t realize initially how powerful the peer-learning element of the classroom would be,” said Shantanu Sinha, the organization’s president and chief operating officer. He added that Khan Academy users appear to be more successful when working under a coach, and especially when doing so in small groups that may represent a family structure rather than an educational study group.

The future possibilities for educational video may lie far beyond how the medium can more effectively deliver content to students. The cameras and apps available on smartphones and tablets are already making possible the ability for students to conduct video analysis out in the field, especially in science subjects such as physics and biology.

Further, a growing number of educators are assigning students to create their own video—either as a stand-alone element or as part of a multimedia project—to demonstrate content knowledge.

But with the flipped-education movement growing, and an increasing emphasis on producing content that is relevant to a generation of learners that has grown up not knowing life without mobile devices, the video-content movement may just be beginning.

At least, that’s the opinion of Ms. Arfstrom of the Flipped Learning Network, whose Ning social-networking page increased its followers by 500 percent, to roughly 12,000, during a 16-month stretch that ended in April.

“I think right now we’re still in the awareness stage,” Ms. Arfstrom said. “We’re talking with the teachers who want to know about this, we’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg.”

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Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Video Transforms Teaching Tactics


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