For Online Class Discussions, Instructors Move From Text to Video

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For many students, participating in online class discussions feels like a chore—a box to check off for participation points rather than a lively dialogue.

“I go in there and do it because I have to,” says Bradley Hook, a 28-year old sophomore at City College of San Francisco, and a blogger for EdSurge Independent. He’s taking three online courses this semester, all of which require him to participate in online discussion forums as part of his grade. “It doesn’t really build a community, if that was what is intended,” he says.

Many instructors see them as drudgery as well. “The threaded discussion felt always like the wrong medium for learning,” says Joyce Valenza, an assistant teaching professor at Rutgers University's School of Communication and Information, who has been teaching online since 2001. “When you think about the larger world, people are not sending each other threaded responses,” she adds, noting that as a result, classroom text forums feel “inauthentic.”

For Valenza and a growing number of instructors, the answer is video. They’re asking students to send in short video responses to questions or share their arguments by submitting short video presentations. To show me what that looks like in a recent online course she taught about how to manage school library programs, Valenza invited me to a Google Hangout so she could share her screen as we talked.

She showed off a particular discussion from the first week, where she asked each student to describe, in 90 seconds or less, “what good looks like in school library practice and management.” She pulled up a favorite, in which the student answered in rhyme. Then she clicked play on another student video, and she said she noticed from the cramped surroundings in the background that the student was probably living in a campus dorm. Those kinds of details help her understand where the student is coming from in her response.

“I can peek into their environment a bit,” she says. “I can see if there are children running around, or I can see what kind of chaos they might have in their learning space.”

Students report that being able to watch videos of their peers makes them feel more connected to their fellow learners. “In the course evaluations at the end of the semester they write that our class has really formed a community,” she says.

Cheryl Bonsall, a former student in the course, says that delivering her responses by video rather than writing "made me more accountable for my words and my message." Though she wasn't nervous to be filmed, she did spend time preparing for her video responses. "And," she adds, "just like speaking in front of a group, it has become easier as the class has progressed."

Valenza uses a free tool called Flipgrid, which makes it easy to create a threaded video chat that only students and instructors in the course can watch.

Charles Miller, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and former co-director of its Learning Technologies Media Lab, created Flipgrid a few years ago. At the time he was traveling abroad for a research project, but he wanted to continue in-class discussions with the 12 graduate students in a course he was teaching. So he set up an early version of his threaded video chat system and asked the students to send in video responses to questions instead, and he replied in kind from a distance.

Other professors on campus began using the tool, and soon he decided to create a spin-off company to make the software more robust. Since then, Flipgrid has raised $17 million in venture funding, and he says the system is in use in more than 50,000 classrooms, most of them in K-12 schools or at colleges, (though churches and other organizations have found uses for video discussions as well). Most teachers use the free version, but the company offers a more full-featured product that costs $65-per year.

Other tools do the job as well, and some course-management systems allow students to submit videos, audio or text for any assignment. (For a run-down of various video-based tools for the classroom, see a blog post by Valenza written for School Library Journal.)

Michelle Pacansky-Brock, an instructor at Cal State Channel Islands, says she uses VoiceThread, another free service, for video discussions in her online courses. In a recent interview on the EdSurge podcast, the professor said the approach can be particularly helpful for first-generation college students, who “don’t feel included in academic culture,” because they can film multiple takes of their video responses, rather than have to be on the spot in an in-person class discussion.

But the transition to video leads to a question: Are professors short-changing their students by not giving them practice making their arguments in writing?

“Literacy comes in a variety of exciting flavors,” argues Valenza, of Rutgers. “In the course of a semester-long course, this is not a binary decision [between text and video]. In life, as in school, we read and write across platforms for multiple purposes, for a variety of audiences, using different strategies.”

Stacey M. Johnson, assistant director for educational technology at Vanderbilt University's Center for Teaching, agrees that video is one more tool for professors.

"The traditional academic essay is not going anywhere," she says. "And neither are threaded text discussions in a course management system." But the growing use of video for discussion opens up new possibilities, she adds, concluding: "I view it as a positive trend."

For Hook, the City College student, he says he wishes his professors would switch to video responses. “In this day and age I personally don’t like writing very much,” he says. “I’ve done business development and corporate finance before I came back to school, and when I look at an article, I just skim it. I rarely read the whole thing.”

And he thinks the videos would add a personal dimension that he finds missing from his online courses. “I often just feel like I’m typing away at my online assignments very independently—that I’m just doing this on my own,” he says. As far as he can tell, the other students are “essentially zeros and ones at this point.”

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