YouTube Teaching

Text and slides from my presentation at Computers and Writing 2010 at Purdue University.

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In 2006, I published a web site in/on Computers and Composition Online called “Broadcast Composition,” which was about using audio files to supplement the readings and assignments for a course I have taught online for several years. Basically, I recorded “mini-lectures” along the lines of what I would have said in a face-to-face class to begin discussions, to clarify difficult passages, and so forth.  In this web text, I discuss the differences between podcasting versus simply featuring audio notes, I offer basic “how to” advice (including on some of the free audio/podcasting services that existed then), and I summarized a basic survey of former students as to the effectiveness of these audio supplements.

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By the end of that piece, I reached a couple of conclusions that inform my talk today about including YouTube videos as part of my online pedagogy.  First, making these audio files was not difficult to do, but the evidence that they were helpful or even listened to by most students was not convincing, suggesting to me that even though there’s a high “face value,” common sense logic to the idea that an audio file supplementing the reading in an online class is a good idea, it might not actually be so.     Second, in order to be most useful to students, the audio files needed to offer information that was not merely a repetition of the text already apart of the online class; they needed to be reasonably “well done,” meaning not necessarily professional but certainly “polished” and “rehearsed;” and they needed to be brief. Just like in face to face settings, meandering, unorganized and long presentations are not well-received.
Third, I suggested that teachers should take advantage of a wide variety of free tools for posting audio files, including the podcasting option on blogger and the free service Odeo. And finally, I suggested that “the future” would include more multimedia and student published projects.

It’s startling for me to recap this now.  It was only four years ago, but given the explosion of streaming video sites like YouTube, it seems more like a decade ago.

Anyway, what I am going to do here is more or less a show and tell of how I’m using YouTube videos in online classes, both as a way to deliver content and also as a way for my students to “present” their work.

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Perhaps you have heard of “the YouTubes.” What’s interesting though is I am guessing that there are folks here who are unaware of the services I mentioned earlier.  Blogger used to support an “audioblog” service where you could use your cell phone to post brief audio files to your blogger blog, audio that could be syndicated and thus be available as a podcast.  Odeo was a service that essentially allowed users to publish their podcasts for free, sort of a would-be competitor to both blogger and iTunes in podcasting. Both ventures are gone (and they disappeared shortly after the article in which I praised their usefulness in teaching was published), but of course YouTube and several similar services are going strong.
I’m not going to dwell on the technicalities of posting videos to YouTube in this presentation, mainly because it is ridiculously easy to use.  I’ll address some of the technical issues as we go along here, though of course if you want to talk after my presentation today or via email or on my blog about some of these “how to” issues, just let me know.

The bulk of my YouTube videos are what I would describe as the “talking head” talk, recorded simply while at my computer and going over some notes that are projected on my screen– or, in the case of this example from an online class I taught last July, screens.  Here’s a sample from the beginning of that video:

Obviously there’s nothing particularly complicated here– just me talking into the camera, noting some stuff that’s happening in the opening weeks of the class, referencing a different video I included on the web site.  I did some editing with iMovie, saved, uploaded it to YouTube, and done.

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To show the movie, I embedded it into the WordPress site I used to host my class, so the entry that featured this video looked like this.  Notice there’s some text before and after my video, and the Google Reader in Plain English video I referred to is below.

Often enough, I’d mix up the location of these talking head videos a bit.  For example, while I was traveling this February and teaching online, I recorded this video:

The second category of YouTube videos I put together are basically slide shows with voice-overs.  This is something that the latest versions of Apple’s Keynote supports extremely well:   you run through your slide presentation will recording audio and then you export it all as quicktime video suitable for uploading to YouTube or a similar service or presenting by itself.  Here’s a brief snippet from a slideshow presentation that is basically a pep-talk about collaboration at the beginning of a collaborative project.

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Generally speaking, I don’t think the production values have to be particularly high in order to get my point across and to satisfy my students.  Basically, I’m just trying to recreate for an online environment brief lectures of the sort I would do in a face to face class.  Mind you, I do have a plan going into these videos, I generally “rehearse,” I do edit out errors (surprisingly easy to do with iMovie), and I do make a point of keeping these videos short.  This is also the kind of thing that does take a little practice getting used to– it’s a lot more difficult to give some version of a “lecture” to just your computer than it is to give a similar lecture to actual people.  Still, pretty low-stakes and very similar to what I would do in a face to face class.

But I think it’s possible for these short videos to be successful with “more production values.”  That’s not to say “great production values;” I mean doing things that take advantage of what video allows you to do.  Here’s an example of another pep-talk video:  in this snippet, I am offering my advice to my “Writing for the World Wide Web” students about having a “happy place” when it comes to dealing with the frustrations that can come from first encountering HTML and CSS code:

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As part of the Computers and Composition Online piece on audio, I did a simple and human subjects-approved survey of past students to ask them their impressions of my use of audio, and, as I mentioned earlier, my students’ responses suggested that many of them never bothered to listen to my recordings.  As I recall it now, I had a few students who asked for help to open these mp3 files.  I haven’t surveyed my students about this (yet), but my sense is that a much higher percentage of them watched and paid attention to these YouTube videos, and I think there are basically three reasons for this.  First, the content I included in these videos was only in these videos and not repeated elsewhere in print, which was the case with the audio files.  But more important, I think that more students watched these videos because it was easier to do (no one has ever asked me for help in how to play a YouTube video) and because they were more compelling and “useable.”  I don’t want to go too far down this path right now, but I think that compelling audio-visuals of the sort fostered by YouTube are a lot easier to pull off for the amateur than compelling audio alone.

I’ve also used simple video in my classes as a way of giving students an opportunity to present to their classmates.  In one of the graduate classes I teach, I’ve had students present brief book reviews as YouTube videos for a couple of years now, both in the online and the face-to-face versions of the class.  I tell students they can’t do a PowerPoint presentation and then put it up online, though if they don’t themselves want to be in the video, they can find creative ways around that.  Let me show you a couple of clips from recent work.

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These videos have been effective in a number of different ways.  They allow students to connect with their peers in a way that is difficult in online class settings where students are never required to actually meet face to face:  that is, these videos literally put a face and a voice with the name and the icon that appears for each student in the online discussions.  These video projects also have two interesting and more indirect pedagogical benefits.  First, I don’t really teach students how to do this work– that is, while I am there to answer questions and hand-hold as much as they feel necessary, I more or less force my students how to make a multimedia presentation by requiring them to jump into it.   Second, because YouTube’s default is videos of around 10 minutes, students are more or less unable to give overly long and– oh, how to put it?– “undisciplined” presentations of the sort that are frankly all too common in graduate seminars.

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Let me end by raising a couple of “what’s next” questions and observations.  First, I think we as a field need to do more research on the use of multimedia in teaching in both face to face and online settings.  I know, I know, everyone says we “need more research,” but I think this is actually true in this case. Like I’ve already said, there’s a high “common sense” factor to the idea that my short videos were useful to my students, but beyond this common sense feeling, I don’t think there’s a lot of research out there on the pedagogical value of this media, at least as far as I know.  I’d like to see some empirical work that makes it more clear about what does and doesn’t work, what is and isn’t worth spending the time and resources producing.

Second, while I don’t know what the next big thing is (though I am sure there will be something), I do know that ours and our students’ standards of what is considered “acceptable” multimedia production will continue to change.  Ten or twelve years ago, I rewarded my students with excellent grades when they were able to produce the most basic of web sites.  Nowadays, I assume that to earn above average grades, they will need to make web sites that are actually “good.”  Right now, I am willing to reward almost any halfway decent video, especially if it is accompanied by a good words in a row essay; I wonder how long it will be before I insist my students make videos that are actually quote-unquote “good.”

Finally, all this continues to problematize the definition of writing itself.  I don’t expect I need to explain that complexity at a conference like this, and one thing I’ve learned is that working with short video is clearly a “writerly” experience.  Still, as multimedia and video become more the norm in classes that we previously assumed were about students putting down words in a row, the very definitions of composition, rhetoric, and writing continue to shift.

2 thoughts on “YouTube Teaching”

  1. It’s great to be able to read this. I think most conferences would be improved if we posted our notes and slides in advance and spent more time talking with attendees.

  2. I agree, though I have to be honest and say that one of the reasons I’m doing this is to have a “plan B” in case my iPad doesn’t work the way that I want/expect it to work at C&W….

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