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When the Producer Becomes the Student: Creating Classroom Video

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Great teachers hone their craft in classrooms, in front of and among students, where a positive feedback loop provides cues about how effective and engaging a lesson is. Out of that context, in a studio or in an office, that feedback is gone, with only a lens, or a screen, or just a steady LED light to look at. This is one of the hurdles teachers can face when creating instructional video—they have to imagine students and become more self-aware in the process.

It’s a challenge I’ve always known about, but Liam Moran is the person responsible for bringing this back to top of mind. He’s an instructional resources systems specialist at the University of Illinois, and the topic came up when we were talking for this year’s “The State of Educational Video.” He mentioned that his production team, which produces hours upon hours of videos for traditional and online courses, has learned to create this feedback loop for faculty.

“That’s the value-add that our team provides,” Moran says. “The improvement in the educational benefit of lighting and good production values is marginal compared to the benefit of having someone sitting by the camera asking questions, making sure it makes sense.”

He noted that role is “the hardest thing to hire for, someone who can quickly create that relationship with faculty, who can give that feedback in a constructive and honest way.”

In my experience, that last part cannot be underestimated. Teachers have egos and feelings, and the best ones are very invested in their discipline and practice. It is a vulnerable position, being yourself in front of the camera for the first time. That’s especially true when your performance at your professional specialty— teaching—is now subject to evaluation and suggestions from someone who is not necessarily a fellow teacher or supervisor.

In fact, the people from whom teachers most often receive appraisals are students, both directly and in the form of course evaluations. But students don’t usually judge lesson plans or pedagogy. Their interest is much more basic—and selfish—whether they understood, were confused, or were just plain bored. These are the same criteria a good producer should be paying attention to.

As Moran put it, “a producer is a professional student.” Ideally, the person leading the production and interfacing with faculty has a love of learning and relishes the opportunity to dig into new topics—whether environmental science or medieval history—in order to become a kind of instructional crash test dummy, absorbing the bumps along the road to building a better video lesson.

As a producer, you should shift into a student mindset. That means really trying to make sure you understand the content fully. It’s a task that should start in preproduction by sitting down with the instructor or subject matter expert and walking through the lesson plan or lecture notes. What are the key ideas or takeaways for each video, and how are they conveyed? Does everything make sense to you?

Don’t be afraid to ask for some background to bring you up to speed. You’re not being graded; you’re test-driving the instruction.

Then, during the actual shoot, it’s vital to be engaged and pay attention. This is particularly critical if there has been little or no opportunity for that preproduction prep. Don’t be afraid to pause the proceedings or slow things down in order to achieve clarity. Also, ask other members of your crew to be tuned in and give you feedback.

Great teachers excel when they have great students. As a video producer, be that student.

This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Streaming Media as "Student Teaching."

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