The Vod Couple
- By Dian Schaffhauser
High school chemistry teachers Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann
have overturned conventional classroom instruction by using video
podcasts to form the root of a new learning model.
GOOD CHEMISTRY Sams (left)
and Bergmann together practice
a student-centered pedagogy.
THUMBING through an issue
of MacWorld a
few years ago, Aaron Sams was struck by an article
about an application called ProfCast that allows
instructors to record live classroom lessons on a Mac.
He brought the story to the attention of his fellow
Woodland Park High School chemistry teacher,
Jonathan Bergmann. The two men both saw that the
ability to capture their daily lecture as a video podcast--
or vodcast-- and then allow students to view the
recording on their own schedule later that evening
could be the solution to a nettlesome yet unavoidable
problem they were facing.
"There are no schools close to us," Bergmann
says of Woodland Park, located in a mountainous
town set in the Colorado Rockies, about 20 miles
west of Colorado Springs. "If you're on the soccer
team or the baseball team, you've got at least an
hour or 90-minute bus ride. That means kids leave
school early. They were missing class."
Bergmann went searching for similar vodcasting
software that would be compatible with the
school's PCs. He found SnapKast, a Windows-based
tool that captures in-class PowerPoint
presentations with the teacher's accompanying
audio and any annotations made on each slide.
After gaining approval for two full downloads of
the program, Bergmann and Sams began trading
off the job of recording their daily classroom
lectures live and then posting the vodcasts on the
school server, so students who left early for
extracurricular activities could catch up at home
later that evening by accessing the server via the
school's website or through an RSS feed on
iTunes. But they didn't figure on the upshot: too
much accessibility. Their students began not
showing up for class, since they could get the
same material by viewing the vodcasts at home.
"It made us rethink: What do they need us to be
physically present for?" Bergmann says. "They
need us to be physically present to help them when
they're struggling. We were finding that kids
would go home and they'd be looking back at their
notes, and even though they frantically wrote
down everything we wrote on the board, they
didn't know how we got from Point A to Point B.
That's when we decided to switch things around."
VIDEO TECHNOLOGY ALLOWS STUDENTS TO REENACT
THE STORY OF JOHN BROWN'S FAMOUS RAID.
A RECENT PROJECT at Harpers Ferry Middle School in Harpers Ferry, WV, demonstrates
how the use of vodcasts can transfuse new spirit into well-worn subject
matter. This past spring, the school took part in the special events planned around
the 150th anniversary of the famous attack on the area's US Armory and Arsenal by
John Brown and his "army of liberation." Harpers Ferry draws weekly field trips from
schools in three states-- West Virginia, Virginia, and
Maryland-- whose borders meet in what is now
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
View the Harpers Ferry vodcasts at
the Harpers Ferry National Historical
After being contacted by the local National Park
Service, Harpers Ferry students joined in the effort to educate their fellow schoolmates
on the area's history through video podcasts. The aim of the project was to
present six different vignettes depicting the pivotal events surrounding the raid as
told from the students' perspective. Six teams were formed-- two from each grade--
and each student given a role: costuming, filming, directing, or camera operation.
After touring Harpers Ferry and receiving a thorough history education from the
park service and volunteers from the nonprofit Journey Through Hallowed Ground
Partnership, which promotes the region's history and
culture, the teams brainstormed about the contents of their vodcasts before filming
began. For example, one group decided to re-create a mini-debate between
Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. Another, using period-style dress, reenacted
scenes from the raid itself.
TEAM EFFORT Hoffman (at keyboard)
helps his students create their videos.
"We let them run with their ideas
with a little direction," says Jason
Hoffman, the sixth-grade teacher who
led the effort. Hoffman acts as the
school's technology specialist and
runs the broadcasting club, so the
initiative was a natural for him. His
classroom equipment includes video
production software, four video cameras,
and eight digital cameras. He brought the technology to bear on the Harpers
Ferry project, teaching the students the basics of cutting and pasting video and editing
the soundtrack. The final vodcasts ran between three and five minutes long.
In early June, the school held a premiere to coincide with the kickoff of the
sesquicentennial activities. "We had the whole school there to show all six projects,"
Hoffman says. He hopes the experience will propel more vodcasting activities; his
principal has given him an extra planning period just for that purpose.
"The parents loved it," he says. "The principal was on board the whole time. The
kids were excited. It was a learning experience that...really got the whole community
involved." Along the way the students immersed themselves in the material. "They
never knew that history could be so interesting."
So Bergmann and Sams took a pioneering
step-- one that not merely made vodcasting central
to their students' learning, but used the technology
to supplant the bedrock model of the front-of-the-classroom teacher. For the 2007-2008 school
year, they decided to prerecord the daily lecture
with SnapKast and require students to watch it
the night before class. That would open up classroom
time that the two teachers could then use
to provide help to their students as needed as
they worked on their assignments and labs. They
recorded the lectures one unit ahead of time,
splitting up the workload; one created the vodcasts
for a unit of AP chemistry while the other recorded
the corresponding unit in regular chemistry.
They polished off all the Unit 1 vodcasts over the
summer to have them ready to go when students
arrived to start the new school year.
"Jon does triathlons, so he gets up and works
out at crazy hours of the morning," Sams says.
"He would then just head on into school for a quiet
place to record. I'm more of a night owl. I'd go
down to my basement after my children went to
bed and record them down there."
A new problem emerged, however. With so
many students trying to download the same vodcast
files between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. each night,
the school server was crashing.
To resolve those bandwidth limitations, Bergmann and
Sams began putting the lectures on Google Video and Teacher-
Tube. "We figured, if we're having internal access issues, let's
just post them externally," Sams says.
They also encouraged students who had slow internet connections
at home to load the files onto a flash drive. "I live way
out in the middle of nowhere," Sams says. "I didn't get highspeed
internet till last year. Any work I had to do I had to take
on flash drives to and from school. A lot of the kids out here are
in the same situation."
For kids without home computers, the two teachers burned
the lectures onto DVDs, which the students could play on a DVD
player. "Since we were requiring that the kids watched these at
home, we had to make sure every kid had access," Sams says.
Midway through last year, the program evolved again when
Bergmann and Sams abandoned SnapKast in favor of Tech-
Smith's Camtasia Studio for making vodcasts of their AP
chemistry lectures. Camtasia is a far more functionally diverse
tool than SnapKast. Whereas SnapKast simply captures a
PowerPoint slide show with only the teachers' voice and
instructional notes, Camtasia enables them to include video of
themselves, as well as work together. To put themselves in the
videos, the two men started by huddling in front of a webcam.
ALTHOUGH VIDEO podcasting hasn't yet taken off in schools the way
audio podcasting has, Dan Schmit, the author of Kidcast: Podcasting in the Classroom (FTC Publishing, 2007) and a blog by the same
name, says adding vodcasts as an
instructional tool is simple. A webcam provides
an easy way to capture video and audio.
If that won't do, sub-$200 digital cameras
such as the Flip Video and
Sony Webbie can record
the action. Likewise, software for editing the
recording is free and easy to find.
"For example," Schmit writes on his blog,
"iMovie on the Macintosh platform provides a very quick and professional
recording and production environment, complete
with titles, transitions, and video effects
like picture-in-picture and green screens."Windows Movie Maker provides similar functionality.
Once a vodcast is recorded, Schmit recommends teachers save the
movie in the most flexible and widely accepted formats. "For video, I
recommend the MPEG-4 formats because they provide really great
video and much smaller data rates," he says. "These formats are
also compatible with the iTunes and iPod ecosystem, where a large
segment of podcasting and educational media is distributed and
consumed. Creating your podcast in other formats creates additional
work for you when you try to pull your content into the systems and
formats your audience will be using."
Don't forget about YouTube, "once considered
the Wild West of video," Schmit says. "There are two benefits
to YouTube. First, there's no limit on the amount of content you
post-- as long as you limit your individual files to a gigabyte in size
and 10 minutes in length. Second, YouTube provides the easiest way
for viewers to embed the video into their own stream of content,
whether it's blogs, tweets, wikis, or web pages."
"We did that for two weeks and realized, 'This is silly,'"
Sams says. Bergmann had an old mini-DV camcorder whose
tape function no longer worked, but plugged into the computer,
the unit worked just fine for streaming video into the recordings.
Another key upgrade in the move to Camtasia was the
software's editing feature. In SnapKast, mistakes made during
recording could not be deleted. The students would just be
instructed to ignore the flawed segments. "You'd tell the kids
to skip minutes 3 through 5," Sams says. "We decided, let's
get these cleaned up, make them shorter, and not waste the
kids' time. Let's start editing if we make mistakes."
In the second half of last year, the AP chemistry vodcasts were
rerecorded with Camtasia. The rerecording of all the lectures
for the regular chemistry classes has been this summer's big
undertaking. Sams says the changeover to the new application
was bolstered by a student survey conducted at the end of the
school year showing a more positive response to the Camtasia-produced
vodcasts that incorporated real video versus the
SnapKast PowerPoint recordings.
After hearing from students that the videos were too long,
the teachers will be chopping up the new vodcasts into smaller,
more digestible portions. Rather than make one 15-minute
video for each class lecture, they're creating five minute files
categorized by topic.
"So instead of putting what we normally would lecture in one
class period onto one podcast," Sams explains, "we now split it
up topically: Here's how you name an ionic compound; here's
how you name a covalent compound; here's how you name an
acid. Three separate lessons versus an entire podcast on naming
all the kinds of compounds…Just more files on the menu."
The AP students will stay with the longer vodcasts. "They
tend to have a little bit longer attention span," Sams says.
The other new components Bergmann and Sams have added
to their toolbelt are a Samson C03U USB studio condenser
microphone, which the teachers say does a very good job of picking up both of their voices during
recording, and Wacom Bamboo
tablet devices for scribbling on the
PowerPoint slides. They recently
added a low-cost Sony Webbie HD video camera, which will
give them an easier way to shoot demonstrations of experiments
and do limited post-production work.
The technological progressions led to the introduction of
another transforming instructional adaptation. With such a large
library of lessons available, the two teachers decided there was
no reason every student had to watch the same vodcast on the
same night. They implemented what they named a "mastery
learning model," which allows their students to work through
the material at their own pace, and when they are ready--
having finished all the assigned worksheets, done all the labs,
and completed the small-group demonstrations with their
teacher-- take an exit test at the end of each unit to prove comprehension.
"They have to do 75 percent or better," Bergmann
says. "If they don't, they go back until they get it."
But again, he and Sams didn't foresee a deal-breaking hazard
of the approach. With students taking the multiple-choice and
fill-in-the-blank tests at different times, some of them would text
the answers to friends who would test after them. Answers to
worksheet questions were also being circulated.
To counter that, Bergmann and Sams implemented two modifications.
First, they tapped into the test-generator capabilities
of the web-based collaboration tool Moodle, which the district
uses, to generate customized versions of each test in which questions
and answers are reordered, rendering useless the texting of
a series of letter answers. Second, when students finish a worksheet
and bring the results to Bergmann or Sams for credit,
they're asked a few questions to gauge whether they really know
the material. "If they stare at us like a deer in the headlights,"
Sams says, "we know they didn't do their work and we send
them back to do it themselves."
Although the move to the mastery model has been a struggle
for some of their students, Bergmann and Sams believe in the
responsibility it places in kids' hands. "One girl said, 'I need
those hard-and-fast due dates; I don't like it when you don't tell
me when [something] is due,'" Bergmann says. "In the process,
she's learned that she's responsible for her own learning."
Bergmann says that with students working on different labs
and different units, he tends to jump around the room. "It makes
for a chaotic classroom-- in a good way. Kids doing this experiment,
kids doing that experiment, kids watching a podcast.
We're calling it the three-ring circus of learning."
Even with all the racing to and fro, Sams says the new
approach keeps him energized.
"Frankly, I'm less tired with this
model than I ever was giving the
same lecture five times in a row."
The two teachers acknowledge that quantifying the results of
this coordinated move to vodcasting and self-directed learning is
nearly impossible. "Since we're allowing the kids to take the
tests multiple times, I can't say they're scoring higher," says
Bergmann. "But I know from 25 years of teaching, the kids are
learning more than they ever have."
He and Sams both say that the real impact of the mastery
learning model has been to put them in closer contact with their
students. "In the past, the quiet kid who sat in the back-- I may
or may not have heard a word out of that student," Bergmann
says. "In this model, I walk around the room and talk to kids. I
will talk to every kid every day. That's really satisfying."
For more information on vodcasting, visit
our website at www.thejournal.com. In the Browse
by Topic menu, click on Digital Media.
This article originally appeared in the 8/1/2009 issue of THE Journal.