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How Tiny Camcorders are Changing Education

By Laurie Rowell / October 2009

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How effective are Flip cameras and other mini-camcorders as learning tools? Where are video-in-the-classroom assignment s taking education?

I spoke to Jake Dunagan, one of the tech prognosticators from the Institute for the Future, who helped explain where video in the classroom will be going in coming years. Additionally, I asked three intrepid instructors, who have been experimenting with mini-camcorders in their curricula, how they are using the technology and what their students are learning.

These folks believe that using camcorders as a medium is affecting not only the message but the student communicators and their learning process.

Personal Documentaries in Writing Courses
Bill Wolff is an assistant professor in the Department of Writing Arts at Rowan University. He wanted to use Flip camcorders for student projects in his upper-level course "Writing, Research and Technology."

In June 2008, he secured a grant for the cameras, then set about figuring how he could best use the devices to make sure they supported "a pedagogically-sound undergraduate writing class."

He decided to incorporate them in the students' final project. "I landed on the idea of the major project being an oral history video," Wolff says.

"I had to bone up on oral history theories and methodologies," he says. But he liked the idea because it provided a handy springboard into "ethical research on human subjects and Institutional Review Boards, two things none of [the students] had considered before."

Wolff also built in shorter assignments, like initial in-class sessions where students would interview each other, and the making of brief videos, before setting out on the major project.

For the oral history, students interviewed family members, "learning things about the closest people in their lives that they never knew," says Wolff. The assignment was for an 8- to 10-minute video, but most ran over 15 minutes because the directors couldn't bear to cut them further. "These were histories on incredibly difficult subjects: divorce, adoption, the immigrant experience, living with a physical disability, caring for someone with Down syndrome, mourning the death of a loved one, and so on," Wolff explains. "The videos are powerful statements, powerful contributions to the growing body of publicly available oral histories."

Wolff's plan was to meet two key goals: 1) getting the students to apply "the metaphors of writing" (research, drafting, revisions) to video composition and 2) challenging the students to reconsider preconceived ideas about writing.

"The course was quite effective at doing that. It was even more effective at making visible what is often invisible when asking students to think about traditional text-based writing: the technologies used."

Educating students about the impact of the technologies they use is something often ignored, but Wolff sees it as critical. "If you ask students to describe their writing process, they will immediately jump to the research they do, then the drafting, then revising, and so on. Rarely will they say that they had to open Microsoft Word, use cutting and pasting, save the file, and so on. But ask any of the students what it means to compose a video, and the technologies and software are intimate parts of the process."

Wolff wrote a blog post about the project, where he gives six recommendations for teaching with the Flip video camera. "If I could add a seventh recommendation," he says, "it would be: Ensure that the cameras facilitate meeting the course goals rather than becoming the primary focus of the class."

In Wolff's course, the technology was the lesson. "Students had to become critically aware of the social, political, and rhetorical implications of the technology they were using, and not just learn how to use it effectively.

"I must say at the end that it was one of the most exciting classes I have ever taught," says Wolff, who is teaching the course again this semester with a few modifications. "We all felt that we were doing something new, innovative, and important, and from the discussions so far, this semester's section looks to be even better." Investigative Interviews for Biomedical Devices
In a capstone course on biomedical engineering at Duke University, student teams create custom medical assistive devices. The course is taught by Kevin Caves, director of Duke University's Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Communication Enhancement, who saw a way to use Flip camcorders for the assignment.

Armed with the mini video cameras, courtesy of an in-college grant, Caves' students record interviews with disabled clients, in which the clients explain what they can do on their own, and later, what they can do with assistive prototypes.

For this course, student teams are matched with someone in the community who needs an assistive device that does not exist commercially: a "Talking Dots" Braille trainer for two vision-impaired five-year-olds, a one-handed nail set and chisel for a carpenter who lost the use of one arm, a vibrating rocking chair with audio output to soothe an anxious 13-year-old with cerebral palsy.

Students only have one semester to complete the project. During the process from concept to delivery, students interact with patients, interviewing them and clinical personnel about what is needed and what limitations exist.

The hand-documented interviews of previous years were spotty. "Nerves get in the way," Caves explains. "They forget to write things down. Three of them will go to a meeting and come away with three different recollections of what happened."

The camcorder interviews filled some of the gaps. Teams could save a trip back to the client site, using the video to answer questions like, "Was the person left-handed?" or, "What did that doorway look like?" Caves admits not all teams went back to consult the footage, but for those who did, the video documentation was extremely valuable. It also helped instructors, who can't always attend each meeting with the clients, to review what happened during a visit.

In addition, students used video to present a demo of their devices to their peers at Duke and, via video conferencing, to students in a similar course at University of North Carolina. The advantage of having a YouTube-sized video over a live demo is substantial: "It allows students to be sure that their demonstration will work because it's been done a couple of days before," says Caves. "It also allows them to focus in on a particular feature that they want to highlight; they can edit it; they can put text over it; they can edit-in still photographs of things. It's really helped to improve the quality of those presentations."

Caves adds, "The nice thing about the Flip is that you flip it on, and you start recording." What he didn't like as much was the audio. Students typically have to record voiceovers separately to ensure decent sound quality for the presentations.

Using the Flip was easy for Caves' students, but editing was another matter. "All the students across the board said, 'Video editing is hard.' In general it was one student in each group who said, 'I'll take it on,'" he explains.

"One thing we didn't think about was permissions." Once the work was done, students wanted to post their videos to YouTube, but didn't have a release form from the clients or families involved. (This year they plan to address that issue from the start.)

Caves estimates that it took most teams between five and 15 hours of work to shoot the video, transfer the files, learn to use iMovie, and edit the final cut.

Caves gives full marks to the video project as an effective teaching practice. "It was a great success. We're a visual society; it's so much easier to explain what you're doing by video. It saved travel time and certainly was easier on instructors. We [instructors] didn't feel guilty missing a meeting if we knew there would be a video."

Community Service Analysis
Jennifer Ahern-Dodson also teaches at Duke, and she, too, saw an opportunity to use Flip camcorders for a service-learning course she teaches. In this upper-level course, students do critical analysis and evaluation of their community-service involvement. "Because critical reflection was such a key piece of the course, it made sense to have it be about the technology as well as their service work," she says.

Her plan was to have students record both interviews with their community partners and a portion of their field notes. "I wanted to study if there was any measurable difference between field notes the students took through video and those being posted [in text] on Blackboard," she explains.

Because Ahern-Dodson was interested in how students were responding to the introduction of video as a tool for documentation, she conducted pre- and post-surveys, as well as informal check-ins.

"There was some fear of the technology," says Ahern-Dodson. "The challenge was not just the recording of the videos, but uploading them to our shared Web space... The students who didn't like it at first were those who were a little paralyzed by the technology."

An unforeseen technology problem complicated the class's work further. Students struggled sometimes for hours, to upload their videos to Blackboard to share them with the class. Why was it taking so long? Eventually, they learned that their Blackboard Web share wasn't allotted sufficient space to support all the memory-munching videos. Once the problem was identified, it was easy to resolve. But in the meantime, Ahern-Dodson asked her students to bring their camcorders into class and pass them around to share their work. "What ended up happening organically is that the students started helping each other," she says.

Based on the experience, Ahern-Dodson came up with a rule of thumb for video-related troubleshooting: "If it takes you more than 20 minutes to do something, stop and ask for help." The students had mixed feelings about video field notes as well as the feedback they received from peers, some of which was video-base, too. "Almost all of them preferred to receive written feedback to verbal feedback," she explains with a chuckle "because they didn't want to transcribe people's ideas. They didn't want to have to wait and watch the video. They just wanted it in writing."

Yet the video field notes yielded value in other work the students did. "The end of semester critical reflection essays were significantly better in quality, particularly with the details. They remembered details two months after the fact simply because the video sparked their memory." When compared with essays from previous years, the class that used video offered "a much crisper analysis," and she was pleased with the way lines of demarcation changed as the videos helped students see themselves as part of the community.

The videos paid a dividend, too, in helping students examine their own assumptions and expectations about the field work they were doing, which mostly took place in nearby Durham. "The personal dimension of their work was supported by the FLIP because they could capture their thinking in the moment," says Ahern-Dodson. Initial field notes recording expectations about the work they would be doing and the neighborhood they would be working in could be compared to later field notes so students could see and hear how their own thinking and that of their peers was affected by the work they were doing.

The students were encouraged to consider lines of demarcation between Duke and Durham's neighborhoods. "One student filmed trash on her walk to her community organization and said she thought the city was dirty and the neighborhood was poor," says Ahern-Dodson, observing that the young woman was from a small suburban community. When a second student, from a large urban area took the same route, he didn't notice the trash. "The Flip recording from the first student generated a sustained class discussion about how our own backgrounds and experiences shape what we pay attention to as qualitative researchers... and what we expect and assume about the places where we're volunteering."

Ahern-Dodson found her students often pointed out things to the video-makers that they might have missed, like a broken sidewalk that limited access for wheelchairs and walkers, or several neighbors sitting on porches in the middle of the day—one student saw it as a problem, wondering why these people weren't working, while another saw it as an asset, providing a robust neighborhood watch. "The 'text' of the video made the needs and assets of the community organization more visible to students who weren't volunteering at that specific place, and provided opportunities for collaborative identification of community organization needs and assets and shared meaning-making," she explains. "We all could look at the video and see for ourselves—and not rely just on a verbal re-telling by one person. This Flip video became part of our collective class inquiry.

"The Flips allowed for depth of inquiry because students could return to their initial impressions again and again as they encountered new experiences that challenged (or reinforced) their first impressions or their ideas about community, or self, or Duke-Durham relationships at the time of filming," says Ahern-Dodson. "They initially see their role primarily as helping others, rather than also learning from others. The Flips provide a powerful medium for examining their own developmental process and reconsidering initial impressions after reading and applying course theories about partnership development and relationship-building to their experiences."

One of the things Ahern-Dodson says she would do differently in the future is to focus from the outset on explaining to students why they are being asked to use video at the same time they are learning about civic involvement. She thought students struggled early on with understanding the relationship of technology to their processes of analysis. "Why does it matter that you are totally freaked out by technology?" she asks. "Well it matters because you're probably going to have to learn something new in your job!"

She would also select a low-stakes introductory assignment, like having students interview each other in class, giving them experience with the camcorders, as well as experience in interview technique. Then she offers some excellent advice: "The previous semester, I would meet with my technology consultant and say, 'This is what I want to do,' and walk through the process to find out how long it would take the average student to do it."

Teaching, Learning, and Recording in the Future
To learn how video will change the future of teaching and learning, I contacted Jake Dunagan, research director for the Technology Horizons Program at the forward-looking think-tank, Institute for the Future. His brave new world is filled with mobile video-capture technology.

"The most important change on the horizon for video in the classroom may not be from a pedagogical perspective, but rather the fact that every student will be carrying a camera on his or her mobile device or iPod," he says. "Teachers should no longer expect the classroom to be a private, walled-off space for learning, but an open and potentially very public space, as videos are captured and uploaded to sites such as YouTube.

"Video is becoming a significant avenue for the way young people acquire knowledge. YouTube has surpassed Yahoo! as the second leading search engine, just behind Google," he says. This trend should continue as improved search capabilities make it easier to find information within videos to use as source material. "How-to and instructional videos on the Web are huge, and getting bigger," but he acknowledges a built-in problem: "All the credibility and reliability issues for the text web apply to the video web as well."

Drawing on anthropologist Mimi Ito's assertion that that video is more about communication than creativity or commercial purposes, Dunagan points out that "young people are quickly developing a language for communicating with video, using short clips, jump cuts, visual puns." But he also acknowledges that "media literacy in the classroom is still rare." One problem is that the rules for assessing the value of a piece of video—as opposed to an essay or term paper—are still evolving. "This will slow the adoption of video as a legitimate medium for classroom communication, in grade school all the way through graduate studies."

Despite, that slow-down, Dunagan predicts "affordable real-time video conferencing will make remote classroom participation possible and very desirable."

The video innovations we should expect in education are reflective of wider cultural changes triggered by video production equipment which is as available as our cell phones. "As video is democratized, new players and voices enter the media stream, and they aren't always following the precedent of mainstream media. A bottom-up, vernacular language (as Howard Rheingold calls it) is emerging around our simple tools of video communication such as webcams and basic editing tools," says Dunagan. "The addition of video to wiki will help usher in the language of video as a common capacity."

As video becomes part of our cultural conversation, used more frequently than, say, a postage stamp, it will affect the way we talk about the world and the ways we learn about it.

Dunagan's parting words describe a future that many may view with excitement, possibly mixed with a touch of unease. "A big story is video's ubiquity. Screens will increasingly surround us, and with pico projectors and touch-screen interfaces, we will be entering a world where previously inert surfaces become information and communication interfaces."


  • Mon, 27 Sep 2010
    Post by homework writing service

    Great article! and very interesting site!

  • Sat, 31 Jul 2010
    Post by Branden

    keep in mind that you can always get used professional camcorders It's a great way to get one of these professional cameras affordably.

  • Wed, 09 Jun 2010
    Post by azmi

    what the best function of Flip Camerasinstalled inside?

  • Sat, 17 Oct 2009
    Post by Joseph Ugoretz

    We started last year giving all our incoming students FlipCams, and the results have been phenomenal. Because these devices are so easy to carry and use, students are able to incorporate video projects into all kinds of class activities--walking tours, interviews, and "re-curating" our annual Snapshot NYC Photo Exhibition. Faculty report that students are doing public service announcements, documentary and advocacy video, and creative projects. And we are hearing from prospective students that seeing these videos (we post them on our YouTube channel) makes them more enthusiastic about joining us and better-prepared for the kinds of work they will do. It's a recruiting tool, in addition to pedagogical tool.

  • Thu, 08 Oct 2009
    Post by John Sener

    Although I don't use it for education personally and don't always remember to take it everywhere I go, I love my FlipVideo and use it for learning purposes. Some examples of people who are using FlipVideo for education and related purposes:

    Larry Ragan of Penn State has done a number of faculty development-related videos which are available on You Tube: All of these were done using a FlipVideo.

    Extended discussion on the use of video, including links to other uses of it:

    For instance, here are some examples of how Michelle Pacansky-Brock reported using Flip Video for Art History courses:

    1) A visual tour of Chicago's Millennium Park - public art at its finest

    2) A brief tour of San Francisco's Palace of Legion and Honor

    3) A feminist video deconstruction of a trip to a Halloween costume store - for her Women in Art students

  • Thu, 08 Oct 2009
    Post by Clark Quinn

    This is fascinating to me because of what's being enabled. While the final produced videos may be an important component in some instances, to me the overarching opportunity is the ability to easily make records of actions, pre-actions, and post-action thoughts, and review them, providing a powerful new tool for reflection. One of the benefits, early on, of digital environments was the ability to capture traces of actions for 'after-action' analysis. Talking about decisions made looking at records of actions is a powerful opportunity to get meta-, to talk about the concepts in the context, to abstract.

    Cameras allow capturing a lot of different activities: point it to yourself to talk about your pre-action expectations and thoughts, capture the event, and then capture your after event reflections. Sun is capturing expert performers with 'directors notes', the annotations about the underlying thought processes (an important component of valuable examples, cf. Schoenfeld).

    Annotating these videos is a next step in providing ways to reflect, but making the capture of the video essentially 'background noise' in terms of overhead is an important step in enabling new opportunities.