Kate Townshend

'Schools will miss out if they're not using video'

Writing off videos as a ‘time filler’ misunderstands how valuable the medium can be in the classroom, says Tim van der Zee

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Tim van der Zee gets a little tired of the “videos are bad” meme in education. The mere mention of video in certain education circles prompts derision and the insinuation is that video is something teachers do to avoid teaching, not as something to use as part of teaching.

Van der Zee, who is an expert on massive open online courses (Moocs) at Universiteit Leiden and is currently studying how teachers of open online education can give high-quality instruction, believes such grand proclamations are highly problematic.

“I’m uncomfortable with describing videos as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when it comes to learning,” he says. “Are books good? It depends what you do with them. The same thing goes with videos. It depends how you use them, how you include them.”

He admits there are plenty of dangers when using video. The first is that it’s a very engaging medium for both teachers and students, so it is easy to believe poor use of video has more power than it does when it comes to learning.

“The truth is that videos are more often overrated in terms of their impact, rather than underrated,” explains van der Zee. “They can be very engaging, but this can be problematic because even a mediocre video can interest students. It’s very easy to feel that you’re learning because you’re having an enjoyable experience, but this doesn’t always correlate.”

He also says teachers need to realise that videos shown in isolation are relatively passive ways to consume information.

“It doesn’t stimulate active processing by itself,” he explains. “Of course, you can have videos that ask questions where you’re mentally working through problems – that’s possible, but it’s not necessarily a part of the medium.”

An ‘essential tool’

These two factors may be enough to keep video permanently out of the plans of some teachers, but van der Zee stresses that this should not be the case: used well, he says, video is an essential tool.

“The thing about video learning is that you have to think carefully about where, when and how to use it, but it shouldn’t be a matter of ‘if’,” he explains.

One example he cites of good usage is as a lesson starter. “Showing a short video to grab students’ attention is a good strategy to engage them in the first place, because in general it’s easier to use a video to motivate than to have one to learn from,” he says.

Beyond this, it’s about having video in mind when planning lessons.

“What are you trying to achieve? Don’t start with ‘I want to use a video’ – instead work your way back from the objective,” he argues.

You may, for example, have a lesson with a high level of direct instruction. In this case, van der Zee suggests video could be useful.

“There’s a place for videos in the direct instruction phase of teaching,” he says. “For example, using a video to teleport in a worldwide expert can be a brilliant tool. If you have a high-quality video with a respected expert the inference quality will be higher than an individual teacher can make and you’re replacing what the teacher would otherwise have to do anyway.”

The use in this context needs to be intelligently placed, though, he says.

“When you’re watching a video, you’re not actually doing what it is you ultimately want to do. If you’re trying to learn a maths technique, having it explained is useful but not the same as actively practising the skill. So it’s not just finding videos but finding a good spot for them – a place in the learning sequence,” he explains.

So if you have planned a lesson, found a valid use for video, found the sweet spot in the lesson to use it and have the caveats stated at the start of this article in mind, is it a case of jumping on to YouTube and finding the closest-fit video to your objective? As you might have guessed, the answer is “no”.

“Schools will be missing out if they are not using videos, but checking the quality and the source of the videos you use is important,” he says. “You definitely need to check for factual mistakes, which is easier in some subjects than others.”

He adds that teachers often don’t utilise a useful resource where this checking has already been done.

“Schools could benefit from looking at some of the Moocs available. You know the information will be highly curated and produced by universities or experts on the topic,” he says.

Multiple uses

But it is not only the teaching of facts in academic subjects where van der Zee sees a use for video. He stresses that it can also be as useful in a D&T workshop, or in the sports hall. “When you’re learning a certain physical skill – such as knitting or sewing – videos can be a great help because you can watch the procedure in action and observe the techniques,” he explains.

He adds that, for these uses, the lens should be turned back onto the students, too, so they can film themselves practising a skill and then watch it back in order to refine their performance.

“Actually, having students produce a video can really help learning in general,” he adds. “They don’t need to use them, but the act of producing knowledge and thinking about how to explain it to their peers can be really valuable. It’s enjoyable, too.”

Finally, it would be wrong to talk about the opportunities that videos offer without talking about some of the technical advantages they can enable. In particular, van der Zee thinks that pacing can be easier with videos, particularly when used as part of homework, or other individual learning.

“Videos have fixed pacing but you have the technical ability to slow it down or speed it up. It can give students the chance to pace themselves. We often see that they choose higher speeds but typically still learn the same amount. With direct instruction, we often need to aim for the lowest ability students in the classroom – it’s better to go slow than fast. But videos can give more control to students – they can rewatch and rewind – so you can aim higher,” he explains.

The more van der Zee talks, the more you begin to see why the idea that video equates to substandard teaching lacks any factual basis. Poor use of video may well constitute poor teaching, but informed, well-planned use of video will likely lead to the opposite.

It’s important that this message gets out, says van der Zee, not only to rehabilitate the reputation of video but also because there is huge potential for video to have an impact on teacher workload.

“Sometimes, it makes sense for teachers to use videos to lighten their teaching load,” he says. “Coming up with everything yourself can be exhausting, so it’s fine to use a video, even if it’s not actually better than you doing it. As long as it’s equally useful, it can leave you with more energy for things that can’t be taught with videos.”

Kate Townshend is a teacher and a freelance writer. She tweets @_KateTownshend