Friday, May 24, 2013

Scaffolding Video Instruction

Hubert Nguyen video editing tools

Certainly we can teach students some video skills. But which skills?

  • How do we rationally choose which video skills to teach?
  • In what order do we teach them?
  • And how do we combine video instruction with the rest of our instruction–so it’s not just “you read and studied, now go and make a video.”

The answer in a single word is: scaffolding. We start simple. We begin with more basic or lower-order skills. And we match the task to the relevant criteria, so students can go from success to success, succeeding first at simpler tasks and mastering them before advancing to greater challenges.

How do we do that? We use video technology the same way we use all instructional technologies.

And thereby we stumble into a hornet’s nest.

Is there a more abused phrase than “instructional technology” or “educational technology”? If you’re like me, you remember when that meant: an overhead projector or a VCR. Never: chalk or a map. And yet aren’t those “tools” as well?

But if you think about some very familiar “instructional technologies,” they actually give us a very good image of the purposes or functions we need to perform in the classroom–and beyond.

  • The instructor writes on a blackboard or whiteboard. By doing this, the instructor’s message becomes easier to see in the back row. And it’s easier for students to reflect on and perhaps take down something that endures for several minutes–as opposed to the disappearing stream of oral discourse.
  • A student takes notes with a pencil and paper–or records a lecture with a voice recorder. This is also very practical. Even if it didn’t help the student commit information to memory, the act of writing leaves a concrete record to which the student can return later.
  • A map or a microscope slides provide evidence the students explore, analyze and use. Here the evidence depends on the discipline. Geography has need of maps. Biology has need of tissue samples. Language classes have recorded examples of native speakers.
  • A poem or painting serves as an exemplary of an art form: students unpack its many meanings and analyze its devices. To understand what a work of art is you’ve got to encounter one. However you define “art,” you’re usually looking at something complex and multilayered whose meanings must be extracted through interpretation and by reference to the history of the medium, its most expert practitioners.

In short, instruction uses tools that serve different purposes or functions–each with its own kind of criteria. (And we can infer the functions by looking at many instances of the tools in order to derive the general type for the particular instances.)

  • Utilitarian: in one very common case, making information more legible or audible. Here the criteria are generally pragmatic: cost, effectiveness, etc.
  • Documentary: recording or capturing to make a message enduring and accessible. Here the criteria involve fidelity: does the tool capture enough information with a high enough degree of clarity. More is not necessarily better: often, little benefit is gained from additional fidelity.
  • Evidentiary: bearing evidence or information specific to the objects and practices of a discipline. Each discipline decides what facets of information are more and less pertinent: one lung x-ray may be better for one diagnostic purpose, while another is better for examining some other aspect of lung structure or function.
  • Aesthetic: compact, complex, layered information. Here also, each discipline decides which medium and instance carries this information the best–a color slide or jpeg of a certain size, a VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray all vary by the amount and quality of information.

Video can serve exactly the same kinds of functions. Indeed, this is true of instructional technologies in general: they serve some particular function–and if they don’t, they aren’t worth a damn–and these four functions seem fundamental.

What’s more, when students and teachers start using video, they most likely proceed through these functions in pretty much this order. A few examples can convey this idea.

  • Students interview each other or capture video reflections in a diaristic or reflective way. Instead of writing on pieces of paper or an online discussion board, students can use video to capture thoughts and ideas, to discuss. Video is simply capturing, storing and relaying information. Pragmatic criteria apply: the technology simply needs to be reliable and easy enough.
  • Students observe and use video to capture details of a thing, place or process. This could be an ethnographic study of how people use a certain cooking implement. It could be the way a certain animal behaves. It could capture small group dynamics during a discussion. Fidelity is the key criteria: the viewer needs to be able to see and hear well enough, and so students will learn how to place the camera, capture adequate sound, and find lighting that is adequate to the task. There is little sense that a more artful recording is better.
  • Students collect and edit video footage to focus on that evidence which is most relevant to their discipline, topic or argument. This is part of the editing process. Perhaps the original observations are good enough, and now editing selects the most relevant material. What’s being studied and said determines which pieces of video are more interesting.
  • Students combine their evidence in subtle and complex arrangements which condense much meaning into a small space. One way we talk about works of art is to point out how: if any small detail were changed, that would change the whole. When students continue to edit their footage, their message becomes more minutely organized, the impact more powerful, and the message more nuanced. While students may not make “a work of art,” their work becomes more artful–and thus more impactful.

In short, we expect tools to meet our needs. When we are clear about what those needs are, we can better pick the tool. I once worked with a programmer who used the wonderful phrase “gold-plated wrench”–meaning a tool that is a costly work of art but is no more useful for it.

If we help students simply capture footage first, they can move on to capturing good-enough footage, then relevant footage, and finally merging that footage into a complex whole. The last part requires the most sophistication, but by keying our expectations to where students are in the learning process, we help them progress in an order whose logic is dictated by increasing complexity.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Some Tech Tips & Links about Mobile Blog Posting

Okay. I'm not going for depth here: just sharing some useful information.

If you want your students to blog, being plug-and-play can be easier on you: you don't have to support a platform. Just ask your students to blog or tweet where they are comfortable. You only need to be able to search for the relevant tags. Or you can ask students to post links into a class-only discussion board.

Nevertheless, it can be useful to share some tips with your students. I've collected some relevant links here.


  • For searching purposes, you might devise a #hashtag, tag or combination that, separately or together, identifies either your program or this instance of it.
    • E.g., #mycollege #coursename




--Edward R. O'Neill

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Start Small, Simple and Easy.

amazing scaffold
Seven Ways To Scaffold Authentic Learning

Let’s say you want to learn to play the piano.

(That's called "authentic learning": a real thing that a normal person can recognize, rather than a pencil-and-paper test about an abstract concept or heap of facts.)

What’s more: you want to play a Beethoven piano sonata.

So how do you go about achieving something

complex, and

Practically-speaking, you should likely start with something

simple, and

Maybe start with a folk tune or a two-part invention.

Heck, even just plunk out a single melody.

In the theory and practice of learning, there are many names for this.

  • One is “curriculum design” or "curriculum theory": the way you sequence tasks and goals to make them achievable.
  • There’s another concept called “self-efficacy”: this means that if you think you’ll be able to do something, you’re more likely to be able to. It sounds like ‘the power of positive thinking,’ but it’s actually well researched. So if you can prove to yourself “yes, I can do this,” even in a small way, that can build your sense of self-efficacy.
  • Maybe most on-target is the notion of scaffolding. Scaffolding mean: the structure around the learner that helps her to reach the goal. Briefly: instead of jumping upward ten feet, break that leap into ten one-foot steps.

(In a sense, it doesn't matter why starting small, simple and easy is a good idea--any more than it matters why too much salt makes things taste bad: it's just something you need to deal with.)

Sadly, much of the discussion of scaffolding is mired in very paternalistic forms of instruction: the teacher scaffolds by explaining, demonstrating, coaching. Okay.

  • But the center of the process should be the learner, not the teacher.
  • And the conceptual basis of scaffolding in this sense has to do with psychological and cognitive development: it’s not appropriate for adults--or really even teens.
  • Finally, what many people called "scaffolding" sounds more like methods of instruction--tell them, show them, help them, etc. Nevertheless, the general term is probably good enough for us.

“Start from small, simple and easy and work to big, complex and hard” is a kind of scaffolding. It’s very common in practical arts like cooking or sewing, games and art forms that amateurs enjoy--like playing the guitar or the piano. (I discussed that here.) And so as we teach or plan learning (even our own), practical arts and games can guide us: they give us clear images of ways to make something more learnable.

Cooking provides excellent examples. The boss is coming to dinner, and you need to make a four-course meal with a gourmet dessert. (I know: it’s not the 1950’s, but go along with me for a minute.)

Let's say you can handle the first three courses. It's the dessert you want to focus on: you figure if that wows them, any earlier sins will be forgiven.

Let's say you settle on Tiramisu. You know: it's that lovely Italian dessert consisting of little cake-y cookies soaked in coffee, syrup, maybe liqueur, and layered with some kind of creamy eggy mixture. It's a big, complex task. How should you proceed?How can you break it down into a series of smaller tasks that will build your skills and give you confidence?

  • You could start by tasting a lot of tiramisu.
  • You could work separately on the cake, the icing, the syrup.
  • You could practice making the dish for two instead of eight.
  • You could make a simpler version without the syrup.
  • You could substitute some easier ingredients--like a cake that’s simpler, maybe a quickbread. Or you could just throw the elements into a bowl (like strawberry shortbread) instead of layering it carefully.
  • You could make a few using storebought ingredients.
  • You could just work on the flavors by mixing liqueurs in a cocktail, trying to get just the right balance of coffee and cake and chocolate and rum (if you even like that).

What I’m thinking here is: making one whole thing that’s big, complex and difficult is often also assumed to be:

  • 100% original and embedded in a specific discipline--like cooking vs. mixology.
  • And the “making” part is the opposite of: using, analyzing, criticizing.

Taken together, this gives us a neat-enough distinction amongst seven dimensions or axes along which difficulty can be scaled.(The "big, complex, difficult" elements I've already flagged are shown in silver, so you can see clearly the other dimensions I'm pointing out.)

  earlier: preparation later: goal
1. analysis vs. synthesis make & take apart
aka “cross-training”
2. wholeness whole or part
aka 'component' skills
3. scale/scope smaller bigger
4. complexity,
number of dimensions
simpler more complex
5. difficulty easier harder
6. originality partly pre-made more original
7. disciplinarity/domain non-discipline-specific
or from another domain
within the target domain

Training for sports and practicing various games all have ways of doing these things.

  • Athletes watch films of their games and their opponents.
  • In tennis, we might practice just the service or just the backhand.
  • Young people playing baseball sometimes just use the infield.
  • One-on-one basketball is a smaller version of the full-team, full-court version.
  • Whiffleball and T-ball are ‘scaffolded’ versions of baseball: they focus on making the hitting part easier.
  • Chess players can start playing an historical game, to see how they can handle that situation. (It’s not their own game played from the get-go.)
  • Athletes sometimes do strength or endurance training that’s completely separate from the specific skills of their game.

Whether this is doing curriculum design, promoting self-efficacy or scaffolding hardly matters. What matters is: the arts of teaching and learning are very practical affairs. And any desired behavior or goal can be made more do-able by using these seven axes.

--Edward R. O’Neill

P.S. One thing I've done here is to break learning out of the disciplines which claim to study it--instructional design, psychology, etc.--by comparing the planning and implementation of learning to other domains where the practical organization seems more obvious.

The idea is: to make methods of planning learning 'portable' or transferrable from one domain to another. Whatever theories we apply or whatever psychological or social processes underly them, teaching and learning are still practical activities: you need to unlock the classroom door before you can go in and learn. Hence, learning is susceptible to the kinds of common sense planning we do everyday.

In a sense, the common sense of practice is not conceptual enough to be discussed 'seriously' in most of the fields that claim to study learning. But if you want to help people learn, a little common sense sure helps.