Using Media to Pace Your Class
Tools and Tips for Incorporating Video

By Geoff Klock / August 2010

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In the early days of cinema, film came in cans. A can of film would hold 15 to 20 minutes worth of film. People came to think of the cans as sequences in a film: a 15-minute scene of our heroes planning a heist, a 20-minute car chase, a 15-minute romantic interlude, and so on. Once movies went digital, the cans were no longer needed, but audiences still expected a change of pace every 15 to 20 minutes. Anything longer than that, even a very exciting fight scene, and folks start to get restless. The same goes for television shows.

Your brain has been trained to expect a break or change of pace every 15 minutes or so, and if you don't get it, you can get restless.

When a movie feels long, it is often not because of the actual minutes that are going by, but because of pacing problems caused by not adhering to this basic principle.

The same is true in the classroom and virtual classroom. If you do anything for more than 20 minutes, students get restless. One way I deal with this in my English literature and composition courses is to have 20 minutes of me introducing some short text, like John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14," followed by 20 minutes of the students answering questions about it in groups, followed by a 20-minute class discussion of what they have discovered.

I also keep a collection of relevant film clips on hand to break up the monotony of discussion, to reenergize a class grown bored — not because they have attention deficit disorder, but because a well-paced, technology-enhanced class feels like it's going by faster and is more enjoyable for students. And when students are enjoying themselves, it's a lot easier to teach them.

When talking about Macbeth, for example, I never read longer passages aloud. Instead, I play a clip of an actor reading the lines from a film version of the play. Every clip I use comes from a different production: Sam Worthington, Roman Polanski, Ian McKellen. I use a scene with Orson Welles performing the "in the catalogue ye go for men" speech from the 1948 version of Macbeth as part of a larger lesson on gender and how characters variously define what it means to be a man or a woman.

[See the video MP4 file associated with this article.]

The reason I introduce film here as opposed to just reading the text aloud in class is because it is the only major film version I know that gives each character a Scottish accent (and in fact the studio hated it and made Welles redo all the dialogue without the accent). I want the students to hear the lines delivered with more context than what we can imagine in class.

Below I'll list the tools I use to clip and play video pieces like the one above and explain why classroom use requires different tools than what you might use to record and post videos of your own kids or pets at home.

Tools That Don't Work
First, what won't work: DVDs and VHS tapes playing through a TV screen or a CD in a stereo. These take too much time to load, not to mention the half dozen trailers that are impossible to skip before you even get to the DVD menu. Even if you play the trailers before the students arrive so that you start from the DVD menu, it still takes far too much time to navigate to the part of the DVD you want to show. Even 10 seconds fiddling with a piece of technology in front of even a handful of students will destroy any rhythm you have going. Just think of how you feel when, in the middle of a movie, the DVD freezes for 10 seconds. It feels like an absolute eternity.

You could of course queue up anything you like before class starts, but then you can only show one thing per class, unless you have a series of players each with a different thing waiting to start exactly where you paused it before class began.

Of VHS tapes, which I still see professors using, I can only say, it is time to update your technology.

All you really need are a computer and a projector. Most schools should be able to supply you with these in some form. Yet, it is here that many professors falter. Because with a laptop and Internet access, you have access to YouTube.

While YouTube can be quite effective in the classroom for a variety of uses, I don't recommend it for showing film clips for a few reasons. First, the site contains advertising, which does not belong in the classroom for obvious reasons, but also because it can put a lurch in your pacing. Second, the quality of the clips is quite low. Third, there is no guarantee that the clip that was there yesterday will be there today. Fourth, what you want to show might not be on YouTube at all, and you could be tempted to show something that's "close enough"—and that's usually a bad idea. Lastly, but most important of all, the clip does not load until you click it, and often it loads quite slowly when the servers are slow—and there are your lost seconds that kill the spell of a good teacher.

At the theater, we expect a good play to minimize changes of scenery. In your teaching performance, you are putting on an analogous production. Do not make your audience watch you set stuff up!

Tools That Work
You get around this by purchasing DVDs, clipping the relevant sections onto an external hard drive, trimming those clips so that they start and end exactly where you need them to, so that when you launch the file, it starts and stops right where you want it to. This is completely legal under fair use, as long as you own the DVDs you are clipping.

Here's all you really need in terms of hardware:

  • computer (probably a laptop if the room you are in is not already equipped with a desktop connected to a projector)
  • projector
  • DVDs (these aren't actually used in the classroom, which I'll explain below)
  • large flash drive or USB memory stick, or external hard drive.

The large flash drive is where you will store your clips. The number of clips you have and the length of the clips, will determine how much memory storage space you need. If you have a lot you may need to switch to an external hard drive—really just a large flash drive. Movies take up a lot of space. I have hundreds of Word documents on my hard drive, and the handful of film clips still take up most of the memory. A three minute clip is about 50MB, which is 2,560 times the size of the Word document I am writing this article on. I use a LaCie hard drive, but any brand will do.

You will also need four pieces of software, which you will use ahead of time to clip and edit your film selections. These are the programs I use:

1. Mac the Ripper to copy the DVD or scenes from the DVD onto your computer. While Mac the Ripper is a Mac-only program, a PC equivalent is DVDShrink, which I have not personally used.

2. MPEG Streamclip for Mac or PC to trim videos and convert them to Quicktime, which is the format I use to play the videos in class.

3. Perian, a Quicktime component for MPEG Streamclip.

4. Quicktime, the video player I prefer, which many people have probably already downloaded onto their computers.

If you're just working with audio, Audacity, which is also free, works on both Mac and PC, is another editor to use. I edit "Beowulf" passages for my students using Audacity. If you're interested in clipping audiobooks, it's helpful to know that many audiobooks have special protection that prevents you from doing so.

What Can You Use Tech For?
There are several things I use media for in the classroom. I try to show material, such as Shakespearean clips, that directly relate to the passage we are discussing, as mentioned above.

But I also like to have clips that are examples of the abstract discussion we are having, or present situations analogous to the ones we are discussing, often updating them. In Macbeth the witches tell Macbeth he will become king of Scotland. Inflamed by their prophecy he goes on to get the throne by killing the current king. The question arises in class: would he have become king without the murder if the witches had not said anything? Are they telling the future or causing it to happen?

At this point, I play the scene in The Matrix where Neo goes to see the Oracle, who tells him as soon as he meets her "not to worry about the vase." As he replies, "What vase?" he knocks the vase next to him over. He wants to know how she knew, but she says, "what'll really bake your noodle later is whether you would have knocked it over if I hadn't said anything." Having the same philosophical point in another context can make the discussion clearer, more interesting, more relevant, and more fun. It is much better than summarizing the scene.

I also find it useful to play clips that are only sort of relevant, more goofy than anything else. I use a clip from the British comedy Blackadder to introduce the superstition that the play Macbeth is cursed. It's fun, it refreshes a lot of students who would otherwise mentally check out if there were nothing but lecture and discussion, and students get a kick out of seeing Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) appear briefly as a fop.

[See the MOV file associated with this article.]

Two minutes of silliness to get everyone back on board for the next 20 minutes of discussion is well worth the time.

About the Author
Geoff Klock (D.Phil, Oxford) is the author of two academic books, and is an assistant professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, where he serves as Director of Writing and Literature, and puts on a hell of a show.


  • Tue, 21 Sep 2010
    Post by Anna

    I am a student and I can vouch for everything you said in this article. Sometimes my classes are upwards of an hour and half. Some professors don't break up that time at all and some stumble around with crappy Youtube clips (which teaches the students to do the same). I will use this article for any of my future teach-the-class presentations.

  • Wed, 08 Sep 2010
    Post by Dennis

    Great Article

  • Mon, 21 Dec 2009
    Post by Lisa Chamberlin

    One of the selling features of online learning is that it eliminates redundant busy work (if well-designed). Other than the possible student testing out of the class, pre-tests are simply busy work to tell the student and the instructor that "yep, he/she doesn't know this material (s)he signed up to learn". In a word, "Duh".

    The likeliest culprit for pre-tests existing in the eLearning world is that instructors teach how they were taught. Unless we apply conscious, intentional design, we perpetuate the good, the bad, and the everything in between of our own educational upbringing.

  • Fri, 09 Jan 2009
    Post by Elizabeth

    Unfortunately, in K-12 e-learning pre-tests are a necessity as under NCLB we have to show that students are making progress as well as mastery. It can also be a valuable tool to assess if the online material is actually teaching what it is designed to teach.

  • Fri, 19 Dec 2008
    Post by Rutger van der Kaaij

    On your last Clark, yes the content was not needed for Sabine, but perhaps it was very useful for most of her collegues. Sabine on the other hand wants to learn more about another subject. The trick is to analyse the learnning needs and to organise the learning content.

  • Sun, 30 Nov 2008
    Post by Clark Quinn

    Allison, yep, hadn''t considered the ''self-esteem''. Mark, underused indeed, because valuable when it can be done as Sabine points out. However, if the questions are obvious, have to ask whether the content really is needed!

  • Tue, 25 Nov 2008
    Post by Mark Notess

    Also agree, though I think they are still under-utilized for the legitimate purpose you describe--letting students opt out of the parts they don''t need.

  • Tue, 25 Nov 2008
    Post by Allison Rossett

    Been "on" this for years. My main beef is that it shows how smart the program is and how dumb the students are. that depresses their confidence, which is brutal for persistence.