A few months ago, at the annual CETPA conference, I decided to attend a session entitled “Screencasting for Better Learning and Instruction.” I had recently written a blog entry about screencasting where I discussed having students teach one another by creating screencasts (a video recording of your computer screen and your voice-over narration). I figured the session might give me some other ideas for student screencasts. So when AP Chemistry teacher Ramsey Musallam started talking about creating screencasts as a teacher, I let out quite a sigh — I’m a staunch advocate for getting technology out of the hands of teachers and into the hands of kids.
Boy, were my eyes opened.
I still think it’s a good idea to have students create screecasts. But Ramsey explained how his own screencasts completely transformed his daily classroom. He showed that, by creating screencasts yourself, teachers can become much more effective and make their lives easier simultaneously. Best of all, everything he does in regards to screencasting is backed up by brain research. Now, although Ramsey teaches AP chemistry, I recognized that his ideas can be transferred to nearly any classroom, so I couldn’t keep his revelations to myself.
All teachers split up our in-class time between direct instruction, modeling, and hands-on practice. In most of our classes, it’s clear that the hands-on practice is where most of the learning takes place for students, but the previous two steps are necessary to get them to that place.
As such, most lesson plans start out simply enough. For example, here’s an outline:
- the teacher explains what the area of a space means (15 minutes)
- the teacher solves a problem asking about area (15 minutes)
- students solve area-related problems (30 minutes)
Straight forward enough. Of course, when has lesson plan timing ever been accurate? Generally, during the first two parts, there’s a bit of “Sammy, are you listening?” “James, face front,” and so on. And as soon as the third part — independent practice — starts, there are 15 hands. “What are we supposed to do?” “What’s ‘area’?” “Isn’t it lunchtime?” So, in reality, you often get something like this:
- the teacher talks about area, tries to get students to stay engaged by singing, dancing and/or yelling (25 minutes)
- the teacher keeps talking about area, while writing on board, hopes students haven’t zoned out yet (20 minutes)
- the students ask the teacher to repeat everything said in the previous 45 minutes (15 minutes)
- class is over — the students do independent work for homework
Sound familiar? I would say that second scenario accounts for about 90 percent of my lessons, as much as I hate to admit it. What’s worse is that, when I think about my most successful lessons — the ones where students learned the most — a majority of the time was spent on that independent practice. If that’s true, then I should be asking myself, “What can I do to increase the amount of independent practice time in my classroom?” The answer? Shocker: screencasting.
What Ramsey does in his class is ingenious. He takes the direct instruction and modeling portions of his class and records them as a screencast. His screencasts are usually about 7 minutes long, and they’re posted online. For homework, students have to watch the screencast — at home, on their smartphones, at the library, or in the computer lab — and answer questions about it via an online form. Then, Ramsey takes the first 15 minutes or so of class and has a Q and A session related to the video. After that, it’s all independent practice time. So his lesson looks more like this:
- direct instruction (at home before class)
- Q and A about screencast (15 minutes)
- students solve related problems, with peer and teacher support (45 minutes)
Here’s one of Ramsey’s chemistry lectures:
Ramsey tested his screencasting method with one class and found that their test scores, as well as their confidence, improved significantly, compared to a class with more traditional instruction. Because there was time for independent practice, Ramsey was able to challenge students with more difficult problems in class.
Although I first heard about this method from Ramsey Musallam, he’s not the only one advocating it. Others have coined the terms “Reverse Instruction” or the “Fisch Flip” to describe similar methods. But it all goes back to the same basic idea — direct instruction/lecture becomes homework, while independent practice happens in class.
In addition to what is essentially added classtime, screencasting comes with a host of other advantages:
- Students can watch the video as many times as they need to, in order to better understand complex concepts.
- During the independent practice time of class, when it often seems that all of your students need you at once, students can be encouraged to access the screencast again on a class computer to review segments of it before asking for one-on-one help.
- Students are getting the direct instruction (when you’re most likely to lose them) one-on-one at home, plugged into a computer, without as many distractions.
- Since students are working on independent practice in class, the teacher can catch misconceptions early and offer interventions.
- Students spend more collective time on independent practice — where they learn more, and where they’re practicing skills necessary for standardized tests.
- Students can work collaboratively during the early stages of independent practice, which offers support to those who need it and helps solidify the learning of those offering support.
- When doing additional problems at home, students can refer back to the video for added help.
- Absent students can stay on-track with little teacher intervention.
- Screencasts are great when kids are studying for a test — they can essentially refer back to all the lessons from the entire year.
- If you screencast all your lessons this year, you can use most of them again next year and every year after.
How do I do it?
According to Ramsey, screencasting can work even better than direct instruction because you’re reaching students through various modalities — visual and audio. But for the best results, there are a few things to remember. First, anything longer than about 10 minutes will lose most students. Break up lessons if you need to, but try to keep your screencasts short and to the point. Second, students respond better to voices they recognize, so try not to use videos recorded by other people. Your voice will do a better job of teaching your students.
You’ll also need to hold students accountable for watching the videos for homework. Ramsey has students write a brief summary after watching the videos through a Google form he embeds into his website. Other teachers have students turn in notes on the videos or complete a worksheet while watching the screencast. Some more expensive screencasting software (see below) allows teachers to embed quiz questions into the videos themselves. After the first two minutes, a question will pop up. If the student gets it wrong, they have to re-watch those two minutes.
If you’re going to require students to watch screencasts for homework, it’s important that they’re able to access the videos. I’ve only taught in low-income areas and, although only a couple of my students each year had access to the Internet at home, they all somehow had MySpace accounts. With friends, family members, smartphones, and libraries, most students can access the Internet after school, especially now that so many gaming systems are Internet-ready (XBox, Wii, etc.).
But if you’re worried, there are a few options to ensure access. If you have computers in your classroom, allow students without access to come in before or after school or during lunch — the screencasts are only 10 minutes long so it shouldn’t be too difficult. If your school has a computer lab, find a way to open it up to students during their free time. Some teachers even create a few DVD copies of all their screencasts (they use the same ones every year, so they only have to do this once) and allow students to check them out, as they would a library book. Ramsey distributes his videos as an RSS feed, through iTunes, so students can access them on their video iPods as well.
You’re going to want two kinds of software — a program that will record your screencast AND a program that allows you annotate on your computer (basically, to turn your computer into a whiteboard). There are FREE, low-cost, and more pricey programs for both of these uses. Ramsey lists quite a few under “tools” on his screencasting website, but I’ll highlight my favorites here.
I really like Jing – it’s a FREE screencasting tool that I’ve written about before. It’s fairly easy to upload Jing screencasts onto the Internet. One problem, though: the free version only allows you to record up to 5 minutes, so anything longer has to be broken into segments. If you’re using an Ubuntu machine, I recommend the FREE RecordMyDesktop for basic screencasting functions. Camtasia Studio is definitely not free, with a pricetag of $299, but the PC version allows you to embed quiz questions throughout your screencast. And if a student gets a question wrong, they have to re-watch that segment of the video. (For other FREE screencasting tools, check out this Mashable article.)
Ramsey lists a ton of annotation programs on his site, but I haven’t used too many of them. I’ve heard that CoSketch, a FREE web-based whiteboard tool that requires no registration, is pretty good as well. I like ActivInspire, which is actually an interactive whiteboard program and is FREE for teachers. In fact, I used to have students create screencasts using my classroom Promethean board and the accompanying software. If you don’t have an interactive whiteboard, though, you might struggle with annotating using just your mouse. You can build an interactive board for about $55, or you can order a tablet slate — a stylus that you can use for a mouse — for anywhere from $80 to $500, depending on quality.
Once you’ve created a screencast, you’ll need a place to post it. The easiest way to do this is to create your own channel on YouTube or Vimeo, if those are allowed in your school. You can then either direct students directly to your channel or create a class website or blog, where you embed the videos.
Update: For more, check out Flip Teaching. It’s a website just released by Ramsey Musallam and it includes step-by-step screencasting directions as well as information on his research.
Screencasting doesn’t have to begin and end with a teacher’s direct instruction. Screencasts are also great for substitutes. Instead of leaving a lesson plan, leave a screencast for your sub to play before (s)he hands out a related set of questions or problems.
You can also save time with homework reviews. I HATE homework reviews. Ramsey offered a statistic that said 50 percent of your students don’t need to review their homework and the other 50 percent need you to review it more than once. So you’re helping no one. But screencasting allows you to help those that need it. For example, have students show their homework to you on Monday morning and give them credit as long as it’s finished — but don’t collect it. Monday night, post a screencast reviewing all the homework problems. For homework, students have to watch the screencast and make any corrections. Then, on Tuesday, collect their homework and grade it. You’re doing just as much work, but you’re not wasting any class time to do it.
With younger students, screencasts are a great opportunity to model your teaching for parents. When I taught 4th grade, we used TERC Investigations as our math curriculum. I loved it, but we didn’t teach students the traditional algorithms (carrying, borrowing, etc.) for solving math problems, so parents often felt like they couldn’t help students at home. But if they had seen my lessons, they would have better understood how their children were learning and, thus, would have been in a better position to help.
Teachers aren’t the only ones who can create instructive screencasts. You can have your students screencast homework reviews or create screencasts for next year’s students. Then use those screencasts for peer-to-peer tutoring, without having to pull the higher student out of class or make the lower student feel less adequate than the person next to him/her. Plus, every student has a strength, so every student can create a screencast to teach someone else, even your lowest kids.
Some teachers even use screencasts for in-class student presentations. For example, sometimes teachers have students work in groups on a jigsaw activity — every group becomes an expert on a different aspect of the lesson and then the groups share their knowledge with one another via presentations. Unfortunately, when some students are asked to talk in front of the entire class on the spot, they’re less than articulate. If you give every group about 10 minutes to create a brief Jing screencast as their presentation, though, they can communicate their ideas better (they’re able to write as well as speak) and they can have a few chances to re-do their recording if they mess up the first time. Plus, shy students only have to speak in front of their group, rather than the entire class, so they’re more likely to be involved. Afterwards, you can show the screencasts whole-class, just as you would a presentation, but you can also post the videos online so students can access them later for review.
For more information on Reverse Instruction, check out this website, created by two Colorado teachers who have been using Reverse Instruction for years.
Lesson Integration Ideas
Elementary, Middle and High School Classrooms
Objective: The student will be able to use grade-level appropriate mathematical operations to solve a problem.
Often in math class, a student will struggle with a particular operation or problem type. In 4th grade, a few of my students had consistent problems with subtraction and division. Screencasts are perfect for offering these students one-on-one tutoring, without having to schedule the time.
Create a screencast with a sample problem involving the operation the student has trouble with. Give the struggling student a worksheet with an identical problem, but with the numbers slightly different. Have students follow the screencast step-by-step, pausing it to complete each step on their own worksheet (for younger students, it might be a good idea to tell students when to pause the screencast during the recording).
You can create one such screencast and use it with several students over several years. The students can watch the screencast in class, using headphones, or at home, with parental support.
Middle School and High School Classrooms
Subject: Foreign Languages
Objective: The student will be able to express his/herself verbally in a new language.
Using the FREE program Jing, have students create screencasts in the language they’re learning. They can explain step-by-step directions or record a dialogue, all the while annotating pictures on their computer to accompany their speaking. Students can re-record their speaking over and over, until it’s perfect — the repetitive practice will help them learn.
Once they’re finished, they can post the video for their classmates to watch. They can create an accompanying worksheet for their peers to complete as they watch the screencast.
Subject: English Language Arts
Objective: The student will be able to make corrections based on teacher feedback.
Feedback is one of the most important — and most time-consuming — pieces of a teacher’s job. Ideally, we would have regular conferences with all of our students going line-by-line through their writing. However, this isn’t possible. So instead, we collect their essays, grade them at home, and return them, along with comments that we hope will help the students improve.
Unfortunately, research shows that when students see both a grade and a comment on their work, they only look at the grade and ignore the comment. But screencasts can help.
Go through grading students’ papers as you normally would. However, use a document camera connected to your computer OR a video camera to record the paper and your corrections, along with your voice explaining the corrections. Stop and re-start the recording between each paper, so you’re creating a separate video for each student’s paper. Upload these videos on a website like YouTube or Vimeo, which give you the option to make them private. Share the video ONLY with the student whose paper is being graded.
Now, instead of only receiving a marked-up essay, your students can have a virtual conference with you. If they have any questions, they can add them as a comment to the video, which you can reply to. These dialogues are now recorded, and you can use them during parent-teacher conferences or special education proceedings, if needed.