Using videos in the classroom: Learning a few new tricks

Introduction to learning a few new tricks

After 15 years in the language teaching classroom, I think it’s safe to say I’m experienced at what I do, and I’ve seen quite a few teaching techniques and strategies rise and fall in popularity. When I first started doing my MA in the early 2000s, task-based language teaching was all the rage, and I hitched a ride on that rising star, eventually winning a scholarship to present some of my research at IATEFL in 2009 in Cardiff. Another trend that I became briefly interested in was extensive writing, specifically free writing, and I’ve published two articles on that topic now, but as a classroom technique, with my students, I found it to be less than satisfactory, and so have stopped including it as a regular feature of my classroom. Thanks to fellow English Scholars Beyond Borders (ESBB) member John Unger, something that caught my attention relatively recently, which I began tentatively exploring in my classrooms in 2014, and which is an integral part of my language classroom today, is student created videos.

If you’re interested in John’s article on the subject, published in the inaugural ESBB journal, I would recommend you read it for yourself. One of the innovations of ESBB is that members are asked to non-anonymously review one anothers’ contributions to the group’s publication. This is partly an acknowledgement of the shortcomings of traditional implementations of peer review and also an experiment in supportive critical reviewing rather than the kind of negative ‘this paper has no merits’ reviewing that academic authors often complain about. My favorite term from the literature for this is ‘pit-bull reviewing’ of which there is an entire academic article on the topic.

Inspiration for using videos in my classroom (again)

But I digress. I was asked to review John’s paper and I agreed to the responsibility, but as I’m working through my PhD part-time right now know, I felt a bit of trepidation about it, because I’ve always got PhD work pending which requires my time and attention (something I’ve been conscious of as I’ve worked on this blog post as well). Thankfully, reviewing John’s paper proved to be a pleasant and intellectually stimulating exercise.

I won’t go into the details here, but I was struck by how he was able to engage with and use the vocabulary of the social constructivists generally and the field of semiotics more specficially in explaining and justifying the activities he was doing in the classroom, which involved having students prepare sections of language on posters and then using that language to explain their ideas, with his research examining how those students utilize and manipulate blocks of language in the process of trying to communicate their feelings and beliefs. He elegantly links the skills they are practicing in their videos to the academic skills his class is expected to be fostering, and shares how what they are doing has relevance to their potential future academic studies where they are going to be expected to use source citations in formulating arguments in their writing.

I’ll ask John’s forgiveness now if I’ve misremembered or misconstrued something that he wrote; I did my review nearly a year ago, and so the details are a bit fuzzy and not as important to me as the insight I took away from his paper, which was that his students never appeared in front of the camera. They were always videoing something they had created, and their voices were part of the video, as was a pointer that they used to signal emphasis, but the students themselves were outside of the camera frame. This was the big insight for me; because I had always previously had my students in front of the camera, and that brought with it all the awkwardness and embarrassment that being onstage involves, and that awkwardness was why I had previously given up on using cameras as part of my language classroom.

But John’s classroom and mine are quite different, and I wasn’t starting with a blank slate in terms of implementing the creation of videos in my classes. I already have two activities I use regularly and which I am relatively happy with, but I was looking to expand those into something more.

From inspiration to implementation: An example of how I use videos in my classroom

This blog post has already gotten longer than I had first anticipated, so I’m only going to discuss one of the activities here. I’ll add a link once I’ve created a post for the other topic.

The first of the activities, split stories, I’ve blogged about before. These are an inspiration I got from Tim Murphey and involve telling the beginning of a story, stopping at the climax, getting students to think about the conclusion, and then finally sharing the ending. My favorite way to do this is to share the beginning of the story at the end of class, and then the next week share the conclusion to the story at the start of class. I find it’s a good way to get students to remember something from class one week to the next, and it gives them something to look forward to early on in the lesson.

The language learning aspects of the activity are that, after the telling of part 1, I ask my students to write part 1 and to guess the ending of the story, or to answer a question I pose about the ending to the story. If you’re interested in an example of a part 1 story, the Canadian Patient is one. I’m working on others, but am slower in getting them online than I would like. I collect students’ writing, check it, and after the telling of part 2, ask them to write part 2 as well, along with their thoughts about the story. The fancy word for this is multimodal; they are hearing a story and then writing it down, and so they are switching from the spoken input mode to the written output mode.

I’ve been doing this activity for three years or so now, and I rather enjoy it, but I felt there was a bit of potential lost; the students would write the stories, I would check their writing, and we would move on with the class. I was looking for a way to give them a bit more ownership over the stories, and I also wanted to get them to manipulate the language a bit more. John’s research gave me a seed from which to grow a more interactive means of having students interact with the stories.

Now, after they’ve written their part 1 and part 2 summaries, I ask them to write scripts for the stories, so they are going from a narrative format (my telling) to a dialogic format (the characters in the story interacting). After I check the story scripts, students create backgrounds and props, and finally video their representation of the story. If you’re interested in what this looks like, then visit my Ramen story blog post, and next watch my students’ video representation of the story below. (Sincere apologies to my sister, who is an entirely fictional creation, except when she isn’t.)

A student group video adaptation of the Ramen story

Going from my stories to students’ stories

This activity can flow into students creating their own split stories, which they can then develop into videos of their own. One of my favorite from the semester just passed is that of a student’s lost turtle. The Part 1 and Part 2 videos have been included below.

An example student’s split story, part 1

An example student’s split story, part 2

Challenges with the video making

My students have been rather happy with the use of these videos, and I feel they’ve added an excellent extra dimension to the split storytelling I’ve been doing in class. There are some concerns I have regarding their implementation, though. I’ve included a few of them here, along with solutions I’ve either implemented or an considering implementing.

Getting all the students involved

I’ve been asking students to write the stories and scripts in groups, but I’ve realized that there are some students who aren’t doing anything at certain stages in the lesson. My solution was to realize that not all stories need to be developed into scripts, and that not all scripts need to be developed into videos. Thus I can ask every student to write part 1 of the story, for two students to collaborate together to develop a script, and then for four students to select a script to prepare to be videoed. There are still students who don’t engage or participate, but they are easier to distinguish, as their initial stories are blank. How to engage them is a topic for another time.

The videoing itself

When I started using videos, I was having students use their smartphones, but I had a real challenge getting the images from their phones to somewhere where I could see them myself (without keeping their cell phones). I solved this problem by ordering six digital cameras with SD cards, so the equipment is all mine now. I would like to order another two cameras, as there are times when access to a camera is a bit of a bottleneck in my classroom. I’m lucky I had the resources to order this equipment through my university rather than having to pay for it myself, but if teachers are working part-time or don’t have access to sufficient institutional funding, then this could certainly be an issue for them.

Time spent outside of language work

Preparing the props for the videos takes time, and while students generally seem to enjoy this time, it’s also time spent away from concentrating on English. Some have noted this in their feedback as a concern from their perspective, and it’s something I’ve been conscious of myself. One thing I’ve done to address this is that I’ve saved some of the props from the previous semester with the intention of recycling them in the coming semester. My worry is that doing this is going to take some of the ownership of the videos away from the students. Watch this space and I’ll try to add an update about how well this ends up working out.

Feedback on the videos

Right now I post the videos to a forum in the class Moodle and ask students to watch the videos and to make a comment on them, but the comments to date tend to be quite superficial. I need a better means of encouraging students to give more meaningful feedback to their peers, and I also need to be more on top of the video projects myself; this semester just past I didn’t make the time to watch many of the videos until after the semester had finished, which was unfortunate. I don’t really want a rubric to mark the videos, but I think some honest feedback about their quality would help the students to improve their production quality as the semester progresses.

In closing

I want to thank John for the original inspiration and for the request that I write about my own experience of adapting his idea to my classroom. I hope to expand on this topic in future posts, but will end here for now. Any questions or comments? Please feel free to add them here, along with explanations of whether you use student generate videos in your classroom, how, and why.