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“My professor isn’t doing her job!”

This response is what my colleague predicted if she used my teaching videos in her own class--and she is far from alone. Despite the fact that such resources have been shown to enhance the educational experience, concerns such as those my colleague expressed continue to limit their use.

I am a mathematician and a professor of engineering. In this capacity, I have made many instructional videos in order to use my time with students more effectively. Students watch instructional videos on their own before class—obtaining the necessary foundation for more engaged learning. In a class on scientific computing for example (typically taken by a large number of first-year students), learners might watch a video on a new element of a programming language before class to introduce them to the syntax and grammar of the new construct. This leaves classroom time open for activities that guide students to apply the newly learned material (such as write computer programs involving the new language element), make connections to previously learned material (allowing them to combine several constructs into more complex algorithms), classroom discussions and group work. After class students are then ready to creatively solve new problems involving a variety of tools.

Why is this important? Numerous studies have shown that employing such active learning strategies improves learning and retention amongst students. One seminal study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, meta-analyzed 225 recent studies on examination scores and failure rates in STEM courses when comparing traditional lecture-style learning to active learning. It was shown that active learning on average leads to a raise in average grade by half a letter, whereas failure rates are about 55% higher in traditional lecture-based classes than in active learning environments.

The impact is especially great for women and others under-represented in STEM fields. Studies show that the achievement gap in STEM classes can be reduced or even annihilated for women, first-generation college students and underrepresented minority students if active learning strategies are employed. In order to make this happen in the classroom, it is effective to place some amount of foundational learning outside of class time.

Yet for all the evidence that shows the power of active learning, higher education has, on the whole, been slow to adapt. It takes an inordinate amount of effort to produce adequate learning materials such as pre-class videos and quizzes as well as in-class activities. It’s utterly unrealistic (as well as unnecessary) to expect every faculty member to create their own.

The obvious answer is to pool resources. But fear of the response my colleague predicted among students is quite common. And even if she could convince her students of the benefits, her colleagues might still not agree and treat her practice negatively in her evaluation for promotion or even tenure decisions.

But isn’t this paradoxical? Most of us do not write our own textbooks after all. It is completely common place to adopt a textbook written by another instructor. And isn’t an instructional video simply a new form of a textbook

Pedagogical change has always sparked resistance. Consider that it took quite some time for written materials to be accepted in place of oral communication in the days of the ancient Greeks. When the invention of the Greek alphabet allowed communication of stories to shift from oral to written, it was feared for example that students’ mental capacities would suffer since memorization was no longer an everyday need.

Our goal should be to design the best possible learning experiences for our students. Watching a video before class is an engaging and more easily digestible form of reading a chapter in a textbook before class and very beneficial to prime student learning during subsequent in-class activities. We can either leave this niche to textbook publishers, who are eagerly starting to package textbooks with enhancing materials of questionable quality in order to extort more money from our students. Or we can be proactive ourselves and start sharing resources.

One such effort is currently being undertaken by a group of instructors who are creating a repository of openly accessible materials for college mathematics instruction (with an initial focus on linear algebra – a course important for real-world applications as well as for the mathematical theory.) The materials will be created and curated collaboratively, and the project will provide training in the development and use of such content.

Given the many challenges that students from a variety of backgrounds face in their learning, we need to bring all possible resources to bear. It would be a big mistake to unthinkingly write off something with so much potential in order to preserve what is trusted and known. After all, Socrates’ qualms about the written word wouldn’t even be known to us these days, was it not for his student Plato who wrote them down in his famous Dialogues. 

Petra Bonfert-Taylor, PhD, is a Professor of Engineering and an Instructional Designer at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow.

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