Case study: Online video for recorded lectures

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One of the exciting things about my work at EMU has been to hear periodic stories of adventurous faculty members experimenting with educational technology on their own. As the “ed-tech guy,” one might assume that I should be the one with all the cool ideas that I then take around and show the faculty, so they can get with the techno times. Thankfully, though, that is not the case! No, there are plenty of tech-savvy faculty who think creatively about how to integrate newer forms of technology into their courses and pedagogical repertoire. In these instances, I get to play story-gatherer and share them in places like this.

Doug Graber Neufeld, professor in and current chair of the Biology department, is one such faculty member. This past summer Doug taught his first fully online course – “Earth Sciences” – that is, as Doug explains, “an introductory science course that covers traditional aspects of earth science (e.g. planetary sciences, geology, natural resources, etc).” Having traditionally taught this same course in an on-campus format, Doug wanted to at least partially address the lack of face-to-face connection in a fully online course, so he turned to recording video lectures. “I wanted students to have visual input from me in explaining the material which…supplemented their readings (e.g. by bringing in local issues), and served as a stimulus for online discussions.”

Before I go into the details of how Doug went about doing this, let me first show a finished product, because the way in which he went about lecturing is pretty awesome…

For part of the “streams and floods” lecture, Doug stood in a local stream and held forth. (Click for the lecture video on YouTube.)

Working within constraints

Doug considers himself “reasonably computer-savvy,” and that certainly bears itself out in this case, as he took a fairly DIY approach with minimal help from Information Systems. Doug took care of the lecture content prep, room setup, filming, editing, and posting the digital video files of his lectures. The only help he received along the way came from his sons, who served as “field cameramen” when Doug moved outside the classroom for his lecturing. Along the way, Doug hit a number of bumps in the road which required him to do some creative problem-solving.

  1. Difficult lighting conditions

    Audio quality and lighting – Doug used a consumer-grade Flip-style camera to film his lectures. This presented challenges when trying to film himself standing before a projection screen with slides. Lighting in such a situation is sub-optimal for filming, since overhead lights had to be turned off in order for the screen to be visible, which puts the lecturer either in the dark or in the projector’s beam. The lenses and mics on USB handheld cameras are designed for close-range capture, but the camera had to be placed a good distance back to capture both the screen and shadowy lecturer, which degraded audio quality. The audio was also hard to get right in the outdoor filming settings, since the amount of noise in an urban setting in the summer is usually quite high (lawn mowers, air conditioning units, traffic, etc.). But Doug said his approach was “to make an ‘adequate’ video lecture…rather than a perfect one,” so he was willing to live with the shortcomings in A/V quality.

  2. Screen from Videopad

    Video editing - Since Doug was moving from classroom to field in his lectures – requiring separate filming sessions for a single lecture – video editing became a necessity. Doug was savvy enough to address this himself, using a free desktop editing program, Videopad for Windows. Movie Maker for Windows or iMovie for Mac are two other free options oriented toward the normal computer user. This step, however, might discourage less tech-savvy faculty wishing to do lecture capture. Information Systems is not adequately resourced to offer video editing services for projects such as this, so faculty wishing to do video lectures that require editing will have to be willing to learn as Doug did, or find capable helpers such as work-study students. (We’re also looking into other software platforms that enable desktop-based lecture & screen capture, which would help address some of the challenges in this and the previous point.)

  3. File sizes for video - High-definition digital video files are, in general, huge – especially edited, hour-long lectures such as Doug produced. Working with such large files in the editing process, Doug chewed through the hard drive space on his EMU-issued workstation, prompting him to buy an external hard drive. But the file size challenge doesn’t end at the workstation. Once a lecture has been edited, it has to be posted online somewhere to be accessible to students. Doug first tried posting the video files directly to Moodle, but this wasn’t possible because of 1) the file size limitations in our Moodle site, and 2) inadequate browser-based video player functionality in Moodle. So for lack of a better solution, Doug uploaded the videos to his personal YouTube account, marked them “hidden” to keep them out of public searches, and posted links to the videos in his Moodle course.
  4. Time investment – Doug confesses that doing this took a lot of time. Having done a handful of digital video projects myself, I can sympathize completely – video editing takes a lot of time, especially when you add in a learning curve for beginners. The time investment is compounded by the requisite shifts that one must make to take this newly acquired technical skill into pedagogically useful territory. This kind of shift isn’t unique to the process for producing video lectures, as I’ve also heard this complaint from faculty conditioned to the traditional classroom environment making the jump to discussion board-based approaches to online instruction.

However…

Given all the challenges listed above, Doug is still enthusiastic about the experiment. Despite being filmed and used last summer, these video lectures are in fact an ongoing experiment for Doug. This spring when he teaches the course in an on-campus format, Doug plans to re-use the video lectures to “flip” his classroom. The flipped classroom was a hot topic of discussion in ed-tech this year, and a few EMU faculty in both undergraduate and graduate programs have expressed interest in giving it a try, and Doug may be one of the first.

In Doug’s case, he will list these videos on Moodle just as in his online course last summer. Students will be required to watch these videos prior to class sessions, along with any reading and homework that is also assigned. When students actually get together in the classroom, their time with Doug will be opened up for other activities such as lab exercises. These activities will likely vary from professor to professor, and discipline to discipline, so I’m eager to hear how these experiments with the flipped classroom go (and share more stories/case studies here!).

Toward a more hospitable environment

Now let’s see how this experiment lights up on the Ed-Tech Ecosystem diagram…

As I mentioned above, Doug had to resort to using his own personal YouTube account to post his lectures. This is not a sustainable practice if recorded lectures are to be used on a more regular basis at EMU, especially if Information Systems has a role to play in any of that work (and I think we do!). So I’ve highlighted the Moodle/YouTube connection here, but I’ve also half-highlighted the “Lecture capture” and “Rich media platform” (a.k.a. “online video platform”) bubbles. Here’s why…

We are in the final stages of acquiring an online video/rich media platform for EMU, which will allow us to keep all our educational videos under the EMU roof, so to speak – stored and organized on a centralized system and accessible directly through Moodle. Videos will in fact be embeddable directly into Moodle content, such as pages or activities. (You can also do this with YouTube videos, starting with our recent transition to Moodle 2.4.) I’ll be posting more about this in the coming weeks, once things are finalized, up and running, but I mention it here just to say that the environment for posting, distributing, and sharing video lectures (among other forms of educational video content) will soon become much friendlier. And as I mentioned above, we’re also looking into ways to facilitate easier lecture capture, which is a step before posting content to a video platform.

So stay tuned for more on the rapidly changing ed-tech ecosystem and how faculty can take advantage of it in on-campus or online teaching!