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Instructional Video in the Academy: In the Can or On-the-Fly?

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Although I advise against lecturing with them, synchronous video platforms have tremendous value for education. The two major use cases for synchronous video in a course are providing high-engagement interactive activities and enforcement of academic integrity expectations.

High-engagement interactive activities refer to live video conference sessions containing the entire class roster or a portion of it. If the class roster is spread out around many time zones, it’s considerate to offer at least two sessions at different times of the day so nobody is required to wake up in the middle of the night to attend their live interactive session. The live sessions should be run much like a flipped classroom, in which students are assumed to have already watched the asynchronous lecture videos and are prepared to interact with each other at a higher level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, with group discussion, group assignments, or some other collaborative activity.

The ideal synchronous platform for video would be set up to accommodate this sort of session:

  1. The teacher starts by broadcasting instructions to the entire class about what they’re supposed to be discussing or working on.
  2. The class then breaks out into subgroups appropriately sized by a fully participated online group video call—meaning the discussion groups need to be small enough that no participants can hide from the discussion but big enough that there are enough participants for ideas to bounce around.
  3. The teacher can drop in on breakout groups to monitor and guide discussions and respond to a group that’s requesting help.
  4. The teacher can dissolve the subgroups and broadcast to the entire session again.

Platforms that do this admirably well are Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate, as well as platforms that are less commonly used for mass education and that target a more boutique, one-off audience, like GoToTraining from the LogMeIn product line.

Zoom is a major innovator and player in this space. A testament to the quality of the product is that an embarrassingly ill-conceived, yet quickly rectified, security design flaw with its MacOS client that was widely reported in the press caused barely a blip in its stock price for a few hours the day the flaw was known in the wild. Zoom’s client is a standalone application, rather than browser-based like Jitsi, and notably eschews WebRTC. That’s not a criticism, since building a service off a dedicated client allows for more flexibility. An example of how that flexibility might be used would be to have each client stream out two versions of their video, one low and one higher resolution, so that the transcoding for the thumbnail resolution version of their stream is distributed over the clients, where resources scale automatically alongside usage.

Zoom has outstanding support for breakout groups, allowing teachers to randomly assign students to an arbitrary number of rooms or to individually assign students to rooms. The only improvement I would suggest would be if the course learning management system’s group assignments could be shared to Zoom instead of requiring the teacher to assign the students within Zoom. In its defense, that type of data-sharing is beyond the capabilities of the current specification of the Learning Tools Interoperability Names and Role Provisioning Services, which would seem the most natural way to implement that feature.

A nine-way Zoom session, showing the Brady Bunch-style Gallery view (some faces and identities are obscured for privacy)

The “Broadcast a message to all” feature of breakout rooms causes a text banner to scroll across the screen for all users in all breakout rooms, so teachers can easily clarify instructions globally or can join groups to check in on how students are interacting. When the teacher chooses to “Close All Rooms,” students in breakout groups get a 1-minute countdown informing them to wrap up their discussion and when they will automatically return to the full class session. Zoom allows for sharing of camera video as well as screen capture of any display or desktop window so participants can demonstrate how to use software, collaboratively solve a problem, or simply show websites or documents to one another.

Captioning is the 500-pound gorilla in the synchronous video realm, and Zoom admirably has two options: either by having someone on the call type up the captions live or an application programming interface (API) to integrate with a third-party captioning service.

Blackboard Collaborate offers a similar feature set, plus the ability to more directly include PowerPoint files and a slightly more comprehensive cloud recording option for archiving sessions. In Zoom, my recommendation is to record synchronous sessions locally, then upload them to your asynchronous video platform for archiving, after redacting any uninteresting or private portions of the session and having captions made.

Zoom’s Breakout Rooms manual assignment menu, with some names obscured for privacy

Academic Integrity Enforcement

The other major use case for synchronous video platforms—and an area in which I anticipate substantial growth over the next half-decade—is in enforcement of academic integrity standards. While cheating at coursework may seem perversely unwise to you and me, it does happen: Some portion of students do have other people complete their online coursework for them. That is much more difficult to pull off with synchronous video, since teachers can insist on seeing with whom they’re interacting. This sort of enforcement of academic integrity expectations is most commonly a passive evaluation, akin to taking attendance. There exist synchronous video-based platforms for examination proctoring, such as PSI Bridge and ProctorU, which offer live proctored services. With these resources, students taking their tests are required to keep a webcam and microphone running. The remote proctor will start the exam session by having the test-taker point the camera around the room to guarantee that there is nobody else there feeding answers and perform other checks to deter cheating, then will keep tabs on what the test-taker is doing to make sure he or she is not violating the rules of the test.

Another noteworthy example is ProctorHub, which was developed in-house at the University of Central Florida and supports post-hoc exam proctoring, similar to other products offered by PSI Services. Students taking their tests are video-recorded. Then, if the teacher suspects something unusual happened during the test—based on a mismatch between prior performance in the course, for example—he or she can check the tape and see whether evidence that the student was cheating was recorded.

It is my prediction that this use case of synchronous video will catch the interest of accreditation bodies who will demand that schools more explicitly document how they ensure that the students being graded for the work are the students who did the work. As schools adopt at-scale synchronous video platforms, I predict some movement to use them for insourcing academic integrity enforcement like exam proctoring rather than outsourcing it to proctoring services. That sort of academic integrity enforcement can be naturally delegated to the students in the course as well when using a synchronous video platform. Students would be highly unlikely to tolerate cheating by fellow classmates in interactive group assignments over a videoconferencing platform and would be able to identify problems much more easily than in text-based collaboration environments.

In summary, asynchronous and synchronous video platforms serve complementary purposes in well-run online courses and schools. The two types of video services allow for both on-demand learning of the core curriculum and its interactive supplementation and reinforcement and opportunities for personal networking.

[This article appears in the September 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Instructional Video: In the Can or On-the-Fly?"]

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