The Vod Couple

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.

The Vod Couple

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."



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 Park website.

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.

The Vod Couple

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.

Getting Started

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.

The Vod Couple"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.


Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann share their video podcasting advice at Educational Vodcasting and Learning for Mastery.

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."

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This article originally appeared in the 8/1/2009 issue of THE Journal.