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Most of my columns have been directed at new professors, but this one may be more germane for experienced faculty looking to try something different, or those whose circumstances have changed.

Put me in the latter category. After six years of special projects and assignments at a research institution where I never had more than two courses per semester, I took a job at a teaching institution. As many know, the latter term generally means faculty members have a heavier course load, departments offer fewer graduate degrees and, hence, there aren’t teaching assistants to help with discussion and grading. A four-course load didn’t daunt me; I used to teach at a 5/5 college, have often voluntarily taught overloads, and came from high school teaching, where I was on duty six periods per day. What I forgot was that was then and this is now! The good news is that the proverb is wrong: you can teach old dogs new tricks.

A scheduling foul-up put me in a situation where I have four classes each day I’m on campus, three of which are the same introductory class. No problems with my elective for majors, but the surveys were another matter – until YouTube and iMovies bailed me out. Some say that stories get better in the telling, but there isn’t much I care to repeat three times in one day. More to the point, the physical grind knocked me for a loop. I simply wasn’t used to speaking for five hours. Of course, I tried other teaching methods, but early in a semester before students know what to expect, prolonged discussion or cooperative group work is as rare as a tap-dancing Teamster. It took me all of two days to figure out that I needed a Plan B.

For those who’ve used it, this statement comes as no revelation: YouTube (and other video repositories like it) aren’t just for music; they are filled with wonderful footage on virtually every subject you can imagine. They are also filled with garbage, ideologically unsound screeds, and amateurish films, so you have to spend time to separate the grain from the chaff. This takes surprisingly less time than you think. A few culling tips:

  • Look for videos of under 10 minutes in length. There are uploads of entire documentaries, movies, shows, etc. but you probably can’t devote one or more classes entirely to that source.
  • A bad video declares itself so almost immediately. In most cases you don’t need to settle for it. Test-drive another.
  • Try to find videos that do more than replace your talking head with another. The idea is to change the class pace, not replicate it.
  • Make sure that you watch a promising video to the end before you choose it. Few bad videos become good, but quite a few good ones go bad.

Now comes the fun part. Those who already use PowerPoint in classes can simply copy the URL of the clip selected, paste it into a slide, hit the space bar, and the link becomes "live." Assuming that you teach in a classroom that’s connected to the Internet, all you need do is click on the link within the slide and it will connect to the video. You have instantly created a more dynamic lesson.

In a lesson on imperialism for my U.S. Since 1865 class, for instance, I used a three-minute clip on Fordlandia, a Ford Motors experimental plantation in Brazil.




After some general remarks about imperialism and a few remarks about Fordlandia culled from Greg Grandin’s fine book on the subject, students viewed the YouTube clip. I asked students to comment on the embedded imperialist assumptions of what seems on the surface to be simply a business investment. The clip allowed students to see that imperialism has more forms than simple military conquest; it also allowed them to ponder problems associated with cultural misunderstanding, muse upon the role that idealism played in some imperialist ventures, and consider the short- and long-term effects of overseas adventurism. (In the future I will circle back to Fordlandia and ask students to compare and contrast early 20th-century imperialism with early 21st-century free trade.)

I mentioned that I embedded my URL into a PowerPoint slide. If you don’t use PowerPoint, no problem; you can do the same thing with a projected Word document such as an outline. Simply paste the URL into your document, hit the space bar, and it will turn blue, making it a live link. If you choose clips wisely, students will view archival footage, lectures, or demonstrations that you could waste a lot of breath describing (and re-describing). In a case such as mine, 15 minutes of video footage per class saves me at least an hour of talking and puts students inside primary sources. I like to use several short videos rather than one long one as it gives me the chance to change the flow several times during a single class.

A few suggestions:

  • Don’t immediately return to regularly scheduled programming, as it were. As in the example above, take a few moments to ask for student feedback on what they saw.
  • A good listening exercise is to ask students to jot down the three major points or details they see in the video. Have your class roster in front of you and call on students randomly to share that feedback. Accept volunteers only after calling on three. (This avoids the “I had the same things” response.)
  • Gently push those who don’t wish to speak. You need to send the message that the videos are part of the learning experience, not a "commercial break" in which their minds can turn off.

You may not need to do much of the last suggestion. There in is a message I’d like senior colleagues to contemplate. If you, like I, have been teaching for more than 10 years, you may not have the highest opinion of video. I too assumed that it was, too often, the above-mentioned excuse to tune out. I think I subconsciously bought into the critique that MTV-like pacing was shortening attention spans. Now I think that’s old information that that's no longer the case.

This generation of undergraduates grew up with video, but it’s no longer dazzled by it. It sees video as a ubiquitous vehicle in which information is communicated, but that doesn’t mean that students are any better at evaluating what they see than the pre-video generation was at evaluating what they read.

In essence, our jobs just got a bit harder. Professors are in the decoding business; we teach students textual analysis, the application of theorem and theories, how to evaluate ideas, how to synthesize, etc. To this list add visual literacy. It’s (too) often a buzz phrase in education, but it doesn’t change the fact that professors are uniquely positioned to show students how to think about images, production values, and message manipulation in sophisticated ways. It’s rather sobering to see how much students are amazed when we take a video and begin to deconstruct it for embedded messages.

I've mentioned YouTube in this piece because it’s so easy to use, not because it's necessarily the best source. Nor is it tailored to what any one of us does in the classroom.

To that end, I’ve begun to produce some of my own videos using iMovies. There is a decided learning curve involved in making videos and my advice for this is three-fold. First, take advantage of on-campus instruction on getting started offered by IT staff; seeing how it’s done is way easier than learning from a book. Second, consider uploading your completed video to YouTube as: (a) it’s easy, and (b) it gives you "street cred." (Students are surprised to learn we can enter their worlds.) Third, don’t make the URL public unless your video is good enough to not add to the YouTube clutter, and it won’t get you into trouble. You need to own rights to any images you use before going public, but you can use most things for educational purposes as long as you don’t distribute them.

So give video a whirl, even if you don’t need a physical break. You may find that it revitalizes tired classes. Best of all, you may find that you’re teaching students how to think about images that might otherwise wash over them. Film critic Roger Ebert observed, "Most of us do not consciously look at movies." Professors can make a dent in such ignorance.

Suggested Sources: (This is a very, very small sample.)

1. YouTube: Just type what you’re looking to find. If that doesn’t work, try permutations.

2. TED: Some of the most incredible talks and demonstrations imaginable in the fields of technology, entertainment, design, global concerns, and science are available here.

3. Academic Earth: It offers amazing online videos in many disciplines. The downside is that many of them are long. You should preview them and use segments.

4. Make Use Of has a list of six sites with links to sample classes.

5. So too does Online College Courses.

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