The Silver Bullet (continued)

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

Last time I wrote about how online video has certain characteristics that make it really useful as a means of professional learning (PL). Of course, it would be foolish to ever try and make the case that one means of PL should ever replace others; the point is to work out each one’s unique strengths and leverage those in the right situations. Most would agree, for instance, that one-on-one mentoring in combination with practicum-like opportunities would produce the best learning outcomes for developing teachers. But the economics of the situation dictate that these can only be given to pre-service teachers for a limited number of weeks, and only once or twice during their whole teacher training process. Therefore other PL delivery methods must be employed, which may be inferior in many ways but still provide needed assistance to teachers looking to develop their skills.

Here are four advantages that I thought of for using short-form online video for PL. For every advantage there’s a disadvantage, of course. But that’s not the point! So here we go: online video is accessible, cost-effective, bite-sized and personal.

Accessible
Let’s start with some of the simpler advantages. Online video is as far away as your nearest internet-enabled device. For many these days, that’s right in their pocket – their smartphone, which is very likely being used to consume plenty of video content already. Alternatively, a home or work computer would provide a better screen and viewing experience.

Assuming internet connectivity (which, though not universal, is not an unreasonable assumption), this is a major benefit that shouldn’t be overlooked. Many PL courses are far away – every single one I have attended has been a minimum of 40 minutes’ drive away from my home, and some have been significantly further (e.g. commuting into the city, MANSW conferences that are held at regional locations and even interstate events). In that 40 minutes, I could have watched a couple of videos, spent some time in critical self-reflection and planning, and gotten back into the classroom to give this new idea a go – all still with time to make a cup of tea.

Cost-effective
Online video can be served, with accompanying materials (such as documentation or relevant learning resources), for free. I’m not saying that it should be – in order to make this type of platform viable in the long term, there ought to be a business strategy of some kind to ensure that high-quality PL can be delivered rather than just what can be produced in someone’s spare time – but I’m merely establishing that it can be. Even the most humble forms of PL today have significant overheads, such as a venue, printed materials, presentation equipment and food – not to mention the considerable fee of the person running the session! I do realise that one would need the internet and a device to benefit from online video, but I don’t include that as a relevant cost because the vast majority of people in today’s society will have purchased that already for completely separate purposes.

This is a really big deal. Schools are provided with funds for their staff to engage in PL, but those funds are severely limited (just like everything else in public schools). This is a privilege that not all people or organisations get to enjoy; many need to fund their (mandated) PL out of their own pockets. There are many ideals in education, but a great number of them are constrained simply by costs. What kind of tsunami would be unleashed by a wave of freely available, high-quality PL resources for teachers? It’s a genuinely exciting possibility to consider.

Bite-sized
The developers and facilitators of in-service courses have a really tough job. They are typically engaged to provide PL in once-off large-portion pieces, despite the fact that they may not be the best form for participants’ learning. Why do they do it? The reasons, again, are economical in nature. For instance, if I spend two to three hours travelling to and from the city for a course, I want the facilitators to make it worth my while – so I expect them to give me at least four to five hours of reasonably dense content, or else I won’t feel that I have gotten value for my money or time. In a similar way, if we hire a qualified speaker to come and address our staff for a sum in the thousands of dollars, we want him or her to provide us with a substantial amount of content – a 15-minute presentation simply would not do.

So, people are compelled toward giving PL in long formats by financial motivations, rather than pedagogical ones. That’s sad, but hard to avoid. I’ve sat in many a PL session where my fellow audience members on either side of me are fast asleep – not because the content is poor (though it can be), but more because the content is simply long. But presenters are obliged to give these kinds of sessions.

Then a new kind of problem emerges when you attend PL that comes in the form of a conference that spans multiple days. In these contexts, sessions may be broken up and delivered in many smaller chunks, which goes a way toward helping the attention problem. But then the situation arises where your mind becomes filled with so many excellent concepts and new ideas to implement, in isolation from opportunities to actually trial those ideas in the classroom and assess their value for day-to-day teaching.

Incidentally, this is why “lunchroom dialogue” is so vital to teachers; it is where short conversations about effective and ineffective practice can be held, new ideas are raised and proposed, and then the avenue for trialling those ideas is immediately presented when the bell goes and everyone needs to head to their next class. In these kinds of situations, there is a very short distance for the entire idea-implementation-feedback loop and so learning happens rapidly. When attending a PL conference, the loop widens dramatically and new teaching ideas tend to get stored away in the resource filing cabinet of our brain, marked as “to be referred to at a later date” – whether or not that ever actually happens. Our minds also aren’t as sharply attuned to the strengths and weaknesses of new ideas being presented, because we are divorced by time and physical distance from our classrooms where these ideas can be implemented. When you’re in middle of the kitchen with pots boiling all around you, cooking techniques take on a new urgency and importance.

For online video, 15 minutes is a long time. 4 minutes is common and 9 minutes is about the median for educational content. Obviously this means that complicated ideas need several videos to develop, but in practice this seems to work just fine with our brain’s inclination toward instant gratification. These lengths are far more manageable than a day-long or days-long course; they allow us to process the ideas and try them out in the real world before rejecting them or coming back for more.

Personal
In years gone past, the phrase “online learning” was synonymous with text and images. The internet was essentially a parallel medium to the textbook, and the reason was technological limitation more than anything else. Other kinds of data, namely audio and video, were too large to practically transfer along an internet connection, when it first became feasible it was difficult to imagine anyone streaming video along an internet connection that a regular family could afford. And yet with broadband internet as fast and cheap as it is now (even without the NBN), Youtube is one of the most trafficked sites on the entire internet (smart move by Google to buy it back in 2006).

Online PL is yet to catch up. Today, teachers across the state have to go through mandatory anaphylaxis and emergency care training, and the online sessions are all carried out through text. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but certain parts of the refresher course would be ideal to be presented through online video – a human presenter is far more engaging than reading text, especially for the kind of content that this course includes. People view online PL as a very impersonal kind of medium, and it certainly is not as personal as actual human contact (that is true by definition) – but if video is used effectively, it can be far more personal than a straight body of text. It allows for better delivery of tone and body language, all of which is critical to human communication. In fact, effectively designed short-form video can be a very close analog to the kind of brief lunchtime conversation that I mentioned before.

So, in conclusion – does online video have something to offer to professional learning? I think it has plenty. Who will devote the time and resources to explore that reality? Now that’s the question we must all ask ourselves.

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2 thoughts on “The Silver Bullet (continued)

    @sailpip Phillip said:
    February 17, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Another thought provoking post. I agree about day long PDs/conferences, one if the reasons I stopped attending them.

    Many of the videos needed for pd are already out there on YouTube, TED etc…

    Another entry could be through video conferencing, using connected classrooms or google hangouts. An advantage is they are synchronous, so you can also haveback channel conversations.

    What type of PD do you think would suit video? Pedagogy or subject content?

      eddddie responded:
      February 24, 2014 at 9:52 am

      Totally agree about the video conferencing, looks like I’ll be participating in one this Thursday as part of Scootle community spotlight feature!

      As for whether pedagogical or subject content would be more well suited – my instinctive response is that both would be suited in different ways, so long as you could identify suitable “chunks” of practical or conceptual knowledge to fit into an 8-10 minute video. I wonder if anyone would be interested in helping me build a curriculum…

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