Is video the professional learning silver bullet?

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Now that I’ve got your attention, allow me to immediately let you down by telling you that the answer is no. But does video – specifically, online streaming video in relatively small* chunks, as has been popularised by Youtube and its brethren – have the potential to solve some really important problems in professional learning (hereafter PL)? Only time (and some significant trial and error) will tell, but I think there may be something really valuable here, if we’re willing to explore it.


To explain, let me give you some context first. Last week I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Chris Tisdell, who lectures in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of New South Wales. Some may think that what I’ve been doing with my Youtube channel is quite new, but Chris has been in this game for over 6 years now (his channel has almost 16000 subscribers)! Admittedly he’s been uploading videos on university-level mathematics and I’ve been covering content from high school, but in principle we’re about the same thing: explaining maths clearly and for free. So it shouldn’t have surprised me to find that Chris and I are on the same page in a whole lot of ways –in our motivations for what we’re doing, in our attitudes toward maths education (and maths educators!), and in what excites us about this new and fledgling platform of learning through online video.

But the truth is that as we talked, I found it utterly refreshing – not just because meeting him afforded a break from the dry monotony of writing year 9 programs, but because I felt I’d found someone who so totally understood where I was coming from and what I was doing. Not only that, but since Chris has been doing this so much longer than I have, he has met many of the same challenges I’ve encountered while “doing this Youtube thing”, and he has come out the other side more confident and convinced of the value of what we’re doing than ever. That’s really encouraging, because one of the things that plagues every educator who’s breaking new ground (especially with technology) is the constant fear that what you’re investing in is just another fad that will come and go, having shown to provide no substantial value for learning. Seeing Chris a few (or, a lot of) steps ahead of me, and discussing how helpful this has been to various students, cements me in my stance that video is something that has genuine value for teaching and learning. It may not be a silver bullet – nothing is, really – it seems to be authentically useful to people, in the kind of way that makes a technology (like the book, or the chalkboard) stick around.

Which brings me back to why I started writing this post. Something I didn’t expect about my meeting with Chris was that, while we talked plenty about various types of students and how video has been valuable to them, Chris had more of an interest in using video as a learning tool for teachers. This is something that I have only given passing thoughts to before and haven’t dwelled on much, but the more the idea circulated around my head, the more attractive it became. Let me talk you through why.

I’m obviously speaking from the perspective of a maths teacher, but from what I can tell, many of the things I’m about to describe apply more or less to all secondary teachers. (I don’t know enough about primary teaching to make a judgement call, but some of this may be even truer for them than it is for us; I’m just not sure.) Educators need PL the way a room needs open windows; even the best of the first become stale after a while without the second. This need is particularly acute among mathematics teaching, for a number of reasons: (1) critical shortage of effective maths teachers, which has led to (2) a large proportion of retrained teachers from other subjects, which is great but leads to its own problems; and (3) the subject matter is cognitively intense!

(Teachers of other subjects, please don’t hear me saying that other subjects aren’t cognitively intense; anyone who knows me personally and is familiar with my proclivity for the humanities would know that I would never say such a thing. I’m making a statement of fact, not of comparison: maths is just plain hard work for anyone’s brain!)

So the maths teacher population in general needs PL, and it needs it badly. The problem is that maths teachers – not all of them, but a lot of them – don’t want to do it. Why is that? Like most things in the real world it’s complicated, and there is whole range of reasons – but pretty close to the top of the list for most teachers, I think, would be time poverty.

Teachers are famously time-poor people. The vast majority of tasks that a teacher does are bottomless time holes – they aren’t necessarily bad things to do, but they just suck up as much time as you give them and happily ask for more. That exam you’re writing? You can spend more time to make the questions more balanced. Those students who need one-to-one help with troubleshooting questions? You can spend more time with them outside class. The lesson you’re planning? You can spend more time to make the explanation clearer and tie in more closely to the exercises you’ve set. The extra-curricular group that you’re running? You can spend more time researching and implementing new ideas for how to run its activities better.

I could go on and on – and I haven’t even gotten started on the myriad of tasks that a head teacher has to do above and beyond the tasks and responsibilities of a normal teacher (nor have I mentioned those perilous phrases, “having a life” or “raising a family”)! The point is that there are unlimited worthwhile opportunities to spend time on, and only limited time to spend. Everyone has the same 168 hours every week to spend, and no one gets extra to spend. I know schools can spend money to free up their staff to attend PL, and this is a good and necessary step – but it is problematic for a variety of reasons (not least of which is that there is precious little of that money to go around for the amount of PL that needs to be done).

That segues back into my original question. What does online video have to offer that can alleviate this situation? Of course it’s not going to be perfect, and it’s certainly not going to be a substitute for the other kinds of PL that exist out there. They’re all different and they each fit into their own niches. But the more I think about it, the more I think online video has may have something worthwhile to offer. What is that exactly, you say? Well I think this blog post is about long enough right now, so I’m going to end on a cliffhanger and let you stew on the question yourself until I post the next half of my thoughts on this topic!


3 thoughts on “Is video the professional learning silver bullet?

    @sailpip Phillip said:
    January 27, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Some interesting ideas, I would also add to that video conferencing using products like google handout. I think these will/can have a big use in teacher PL.

    Looking forward to part 2

    The lightness of being a beginner | Wootube said:
    February 3, 2014 at 5:52 am

    […] I haven’t forgotten about that post which I started but didn’t finish. It’s on its way. Just wanted to write about a few more urgent things […]

    The Silver Bullet (continued) | Wootube said:
    February 17, 2014 at 12:13 am

    […] This is the second post in a series; if you haven’t yet, read the first post. […]

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