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Online Video Lets Professors Flip the Classroom

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The biology professor walks into the classroom and stands in front of about 30 students at their desks. She has a model of a human heart, ready to lecture on the flow of blood through its chambers. Students in the front row have a pretty good view, while those seated in the second row have to work a little harder to see. She traces the flow of blood through the heart using her finger. To help out the students in the back rows, the professor holds the model up high and then passes it around so each student can get a closer look, but only for a moment.

Now imagine the same professor has an animated video of the heart that she can show the class. Projected on-screen, the image is orders of magnitude larger than the model, and even the back row can see clearly. This is an example of using video in the classroom that should seem pretty familiar to most educators.

Since the first 16mm projector was wheeled into a classroom, motion pictures have been a part of teaching. Whether it’s a nature film featuring footage from far-off lands or demonstrations of chemical reactions too dangerous for any high school lab, videos let students see and hear worlds in ways that books and lectures do not.

Streaming Media readers know that videos don’t have to be limited to the classroom projector. Yet, too often, we educators are stuck in the mindset of treating online video like Netflix—a more convenient alternative to an in-class showing. Bringing instructional videos online multiplies the opportunities to enhance learning, not just supplements it.

Consider the example of the biology lesson, only move that heart video online. Assigned to watch it before class, a student can pause the video to examine the image carefully or review a portion to make sure he understands. So prepared before class even begins, students can use class meetings to ask more informed questions that make better use of the professor’s time and expertise.

This trend has been called “flipping the classroom.” The flip is that some of the material conventionally delivered by in-class lecture is instead recorded for students to view before class.

This strategy is not limited to lecture material. Students in many clinical fields are required to view demonstrations of examinations. In the past, an instructor might invite a clinician and a willing patient to demonstrate some basic evaluations such as taking blood pressure.

Turn this into a video and the instructor can make sure that the camera clearly records every important detail. The instructor can control the attention of the student viewing the video far better than he can manage that of the student in a classroom, who may get distracted by an aspect of the procedure that isn’t relevant. That blood pressure gauge that can’t be read by anyone besides the demonstrator can be shown close-up on the screen.

Teachers and producers developing online courses are familiar with some of these approaches. They have become all the more vital with the recent rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which rely more heavily on recorded content to serve thousands of students around the world in a single course.

Many faculty members I’ve worked with in developing online courses have become excited and reinvigorated about their traditional on-the-ground classes when they have the opportunity to create videos for distance learning. I ask them, “What would you like to show in your traditional class that you can’t, or what would you like to demonstrate better?” Inevitably, they have at least a small wish list of programs that end up being produced.

Online video allows us to make the internet an extension of the classroom. Enhancement happens when we use it as a tool to communicate and show the things we can’t do so well in that classroom.

This article appears in the June/July 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "Flipping the Classroom With Video."

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