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Caught on Video

(cross-posted at

The other day I was at my doctor’s office. There on his desk, connected to his computer, was an . After the medical portion of our meeting was taken care of, I asked him the question I really wanted to ask: how he liked his phone. “I love it!” he said and then immediately went on to tell me how it has improved his practice. Rather than trying to explain procedures with patients using just words, he now carries his phone around and shows them actual video clips of the procedures to help them understand what he’s trying to convey. It has transformed his work. Videos just get the job done so much better than mere words.

A lot sure has changed since Edison’s Kinetoscope, as we can now carry around portable devices that are not only able to flip.jpgplay video, but more importantly, capture video. Last week for Christmas, my wife and I gave our 9 year old daughter just such a device: a Flip Video camera. She carries it everywhere with her and it has significantly extended the filming possibilities than her previous setup offered: being confined to the living room iMac and iSight.

The Flip Video is affordable, compact, and incredibly easy to use. It comes in many different “flavors” (storage size, resolution, etc), but I’m not here to sell the Flip Video. I’m here to celebrate how much easier it continues to be to capture video and the relevance this has for teachers and students.

Most importantly: we’ve got to get these devices (and I don’t just mean the Flip Video, but also the smaller, even cheaper, even easier-to-use devices that are sure to evolve into reality before we know it) into the hands of students first and foremost. Imagine how easy it will be for students to quickly document their learning via video. And you just know that students are going to find their own purposes for these tools where their creativity and engagement will be unleashed.

But let’s focus on the possibilities for teachers. When I was in the regular classroom, I pined for such a device to capture learning and evidence of understanding. Sure, I had a great tool to record anecdotal notes and capture reflections from students by using an audio recorder, but we know a “picture is worth a thousand words” and therefore, video —or a thousand pictures— is worth so much more. My classroom had access to a video camera, but let’s face it: that’s way too complicated. Video cameras are bulky, time consuming, it’s impossible to search through all that video tape to find your 5 seconds of evidence, it’s even more of a challenge to catalog those snippets and create a database, etc. The Flip Video is a product that is getting pretty close to solving all these cons: it’s pocket size, each filming creates a separate file, its integrated software makes it easy to backup and organize into files, the files are digital (.avi format) and don’t need any conversion for most needs, and can easily be shared via email or other means. I still have a “wish list” of features that would make it better (on the fly tagging of each clip, choice of file format, “in-camera” editing, to name a few), but even at this stage, putting this simple tool into the hands of every teacher would start a revolution.

I know, I know… that’s a pretty idealistic and prophetic statement, but I’ll explain in a minute how such a simple tool can indeed be used to chip away at the antiquated system of assessment (namely, grading), which many argue, does more harm than good.

But first, let’s look at a few example scenarios where that Flip Video would come in handy!

  1. Filming a student on the first day of school asking her what her dreams/hopes/goals are for the school year. Playing that back towards the end of the year and asking her to reflect on it.
  2. Film the progression of fluency on a weekly/monthly basis.
  3. Ask a student to demonstrate how to solve a math problem and capture his exact process (rather than just the answer).
  4. Film a completed product from a student before it is sent home.
  5. Filming questions from the class at the beginning of a unit and filming them answering the same questions at the end of the unit.
  6. Have students film what they’ve done that day and email it home to parents.
  7. Film your own reflections on what happened during the day and email it to parents.
  8. Constantly capture the excitement of learning from each student. (Note: if this footage is hard to come by, it tells us something about the curriculum doesn’t it?)
  9. Capture all that great “Hands-on,” experiential learning that can never be captured by a traditional assessment.
  10. Film all teacher/student writing conferences.
  11. Rather than try and retell student achievements at Parent/Teacher/Student conference time, imagine if you instead pull out a database of video that show “play by play” what the student has done, before even putting an interpretation on it?

Now, I hope I haven’t lost too many of you here as you’re wondering how you’re going to manage all this video collection. But remember: the new technologies are now making it easier to capture and organize this evidence of learning… and are bound to get even better sooner than we expected. Imagine a device that collects, organizes, stores, automatically emails selected clips to parents, and contains metadata about experiences without any more effort on your part than “point and shoot”. It’s no longer a video camera, it’s now a “net”, catching all the “good stuff” and evidence of learning that no one else but the teacher got to see before.

And herein lies the “revolution” part. The more teachers offer up these “video proofs” of learning, the more parents and students are going to expect them. The inherent ambiguousness of letter grades will continue to be exposed and challenged as parents prefer actual video capture of progress, rather than the meaninglessness of a single character of the alphabet or a digit from 0 to 100 that “tells you nothing about what your child can do, what she understands, where she needs help” (Kohn, 1999).

If nothing else, at least amassing the video evidence will provide a balance to the overwhelming focus on using standardized test scores for determining student progress.

Alfie Kohn says it better than I ever could in his book, . I highly recommend it for, if nothing else, his well articulated arguments against grading. And in fact, consider ignoring all of the scenarios I presented above and use your video devices to capture one question put forth by Kohn: simply ask students, “What are you doing?” Kohn eloquently explains why this question is so much more important than asking students “how well they’re doing” and how in fact placing emphasis on “how well” rather than on “what” impedes learning rather than encourages.

If we use a video camera to daily ask students “What are you doing?” and, ultimately, encourage students to independently document the answers to that question, then we are constantly putting the focus on learning rather than on an arbitrary grade.

Students will no longer be “trained” to take pride in offering up a letter in the alphabet or a digit to their parents and others as proof of their “worth”. Instead, they will pull out their pocket video player and say, “Look at what I did! Look at what I can do! Look at what I’m going to do next!”

There is a story (and possibly a myth or at least an exageration) of how in the early days of film, a showing of a movie of an was so effective that audience members jumped out of their seats in panic, believing that the train was going to hit them. Let’s remember: moving images are powerful. More powerful according to my doctor —who now gets his message across to his patientsfilm.jpg with video— than what he’s been doing since he began his practice: using just words. It is clear we are entering into a deeper level in the Age of Video which will significantly alter the way we communicate. Why would we not take advantage of this tool in the classroom?

Imagine: a student comes home with a video clip demonstrating to her parents how she now can solve a difficult math problem that she had struggled with the day before. She plays it on the family television set and they rewind it several times to watch and listen to the girl explain exactly what she’s doing and sharing her discoveries and understanding with pride. There it is: unquestionable evidence of achievement, caught on video tape. No interpretation needed. The parents jump out of their seats to give the girl hugs and “high-fives” and someone suggests that they email the clip to grandma. The clip has already been archived and tagged and entered into an ongoing database of evidence of skills attained which can be called up over the Internet at any time, and has in fact replaced the need for quarterly report cards. And should the girl ever “lose” or forget the skill of how to solve this type of problem, she can call it up herself in the database in order to review. She might even call it up some day just to revisit her past successes. It may be chosen to be included in her “Greatest Hits Video Portfolio” that she will present for her final graduation requirements and later send off to prospective colleges for their review. Someday, her own daughter may call it up on her own computer when struggling with the very same problem.

I know… this all sounds fantastical and like science fiction. But really, is this far from the truth of how easy the collection of evidence is becoming? And at the very least, the above scenario makes those letter grades look pretty silly doesn’t it? Do we want a letter to express who are children are, or do we want lights, camera… action?


Kohn, Alfie. “Grading: Not How But Why.” Alfie Kohn Homepage. 12 Oct 1994. Educational Leadership. 29 Dec 2007. .
Kohn, Alfie. The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards”. Paperback. New York: Mariner Books, 2000.

Image Citations:
kpwerker. “Flip Video. We call it Jackson..” kpwerker. 25 Oct 2007. Flickr. 29 Dec 2007. .
Editor B. “Strip.” Editor B’s photostream. 30 Oct 2006. Flickr. 29 Dec 2007. .


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2 Mathew { 01.03.08 at 11:19 am }

We’re starting to use Garageband to record students’ fluency readings to play for parents. We do use a digital still camera to record moments and play them for parents at Back to School Night, Open House, conferences, etc. The next iPhone will hopefully have additional storage to make it more practical for classroom application.

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5 Bob Sprankle { 01.04.08 at 10:00 am }

I love what Stephen Downes said here:

“… The doctor becomes the teacher. This is key! Personal learning becomes possible because everybody – and not just teachers – can teach. Why does this matter? This: we should not be teaching our students using video, we should be teaching our students to use video, not so they can be better students, but so they can be better teachers.”


6 Clay Burell { 01.04.08 at 5:14 pm }

Brilliant ideas here, Bob. And just in time for a fresh start with a new semester.

I’m thinking how interesting this would be as variation on written “class scribe” posts. I’m also thinking how interesting the scenarios you paint above are, too.


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8 Kern Kelley { 01.05.08 at 5:02 pm }

Hey Bob, nice post. One of things teachers often overlook is the video feature on many digital still cameras now. Not that anyone would shoot an epic film with one, but certainly for quick and easy shots of a class project or presentation, that’s a great way to go. And because they often use an SD card they can be put right on the computer. To see a pretty cool example of this happening check out Bye!

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