Using video to improve teaching -- and support teachers

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smile and say 'PISA!'
smile and say 'PISA!'

Much of the discussion related to how new technologies can be used in classrooms in low and middle income countries focuses on the use of PCs, desktops and tablets. Less discussed, I often find, is the strategic potential of various so-called peripheral devices, which are (in my experience) typically only considered within the context of how they can be used to enhance or extend the functionality of the 'main' computing devices available in schools.

Many education systems (for better or for worse) have specific 'hardware' budgets, and, when they are looking to tap these budgets to introduce more hardware into schools, in my experience they often look to buy more of what they already have, supplemented in places by things like interactive whiteboards, or networked printers, as a complement to what is already available in a school.

When talking with educational planners contemplating how to use funds specifically dedicated to purchase computer hardware, I often counsel them to think much more broadly about what they may wish to buy with these monies, within a larger context of discussing things like how such equipment can be utilized to meet larger educational objectives, what sorts of training and maintenance support may be needed, and how the use of this technology can complement other, non-technology-enabled activities in a classroom. As part of such discussions, I often find myself attempting in various ways to challenge policymakers and planners to think beyond their current models for technology use.

One general type of gadget that I only rarely hear discussed is so-called 'probeware', which refers to set of devices which are typically used in science classes to measure various things -- temperature, for example, or the pH level of soil, or the salinity of water. Despite the increasing emphasis in STEM subjects in many countries, and what is often a rhetorical linkage between the use of computers in schools and STEM topics, I rarely find that World Bank client countries are considering the widespread use of probeware in a strategic way as part of their discussions around ICT use in schools. That said, one suspects that such an interest is coming, especially once the big vendors direct more of their attentions to raising awareness among policymakers in such places (much like the interactive whiteboard vendors began to do a half-decade or so ago).

While probeware is a new type of peripheral for many education policymakers, there is another peripheral that policymakers are already quite familiar with, and which is already used in ad hoc ways in many schools, but which rarely seems to be considered at a system level for use in strategic ways. Once you have a critical mass of computers is in place, and in place of buying one additional PC, might it be worth considering (for example) utilizing video cameras instead? Video can be put to lots of productive uses (and some perhaps not-so-productive uses). Considering three concrete examples from around the world may shed some light on how video can be used to improve teaching -- and support teachers.


Inside Indonesia's Mathematics Classrooms : A TIMSS Video Study of Teaching Practices and Student Achievement (World Bank)A number of years ago the World Bank began supporting a study to examine teaching practices and activities in Indonesian classrooms. At the heart of this work has been the use of video to document what is actually happening in (a set of 100) classrooms across the country which participated in the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), the fourth iteration of a well-known global effort that takes place every four years. (Many people may be more familiar with a similar ongoing multi-country study, the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA.)

Back in 2010 the World Bank released the first results of this work. Inside Indonesia's Mathematics Classrooms : A TIMSS Video Study of Teaching Practices and Student Achievement utilized methodologies and approaches pioneered in earlier work in seven other countries in the hope of being able to draw useful insights based on comparisons with practices in other countries that could inform teacher reform efforts in that large Southeast Asian nation.

The decision to use video to document what was happening in classrooms was made after a careful consideration of a number of other, perhaps more ‘traditional’ approaches (e.g. teacher interviews, teacher questionnaires, live classroom observations) used by researchers to document and analyze what goes in inside schools. As the study authors note,

The video study approach provides many unique advantages for understanding classroom activity. Video study is [like live classroom observation] also an intrusive methodology, and some argue that it may be even more intrusive than live observation, especially when it is done in a community where video-taping is not common. But experience has shown that while students (and their teachers) may be distracted by the video-taping equipment in the beginning of the lesson, this distraction may lapse soon after the lesson begins; if video-taping is done in consecutive lessons, then the effect of the presence of the camera is negligible from the second lesson onward. In this sense, videotaping may be less intrusive than live observation, especially if the latter involves more than one observer.

The advantages of video study are many and make it an extremely powerful methodology for studying the instructional practices of teachers:

a. Different observers may focus on the same video as the basis of a shared analysis. This increases inter-rater reliability, and if the required level of reliability is not achieved initially, further training of observers may be conducted to increase the reliability.

b. The use of multiple cameras may allow different aspects of the classroom to be captured simultaneously, and synchronization and the use of a mixer will enable the different aspects to be related to each other.

c. Since the videos are permanent records of classroom activities, multiple analyses may be performed. The videos may be analyzed repeatedly, at any time and in any place.

d. The videos may be paused, rewound, fast-forwarded, etc., for further analysis.

This approach used was not cheap (related costs are detailed in appendix 6 of this publication) and it required a fair amount of technical expertise to pull off successfully. Each of the five video study teams included two technical people: one to operate a camera to follow the actions of a teacher (a second stationary ‘whole class’ camera was used as well) and one to do on site editing of the results from the two cameras. A third person took notes. According to the study authors, doing things in this manner “cost significantly more than other methods of gathering data such as interviews, questionnaires or classroom observation”, but the results have offered valuable insights to policymakers leading related teacher reform efforts at the Ministry of National Education.


While this effort was on-going, another effort to document teacher activities in Indonesian classrooms using video was taking place, supported

how am i doing? (and what do I look like when I am doing it?)
how am I doing?
(and what do I look like when I am doing it?)

by USAID. This effort utilized video in a number of different ways, to different ends, than what was done with the TIMMS study. One component of this work (under the DBE2 project) focused on using low cost video to as part of classroom observations to support teacher self-analysis and reflection. Small, inexpensive (less than US$50) consumer grade video cameras (like the now-discontinued Flip cameras) were preferred because of their cost and ease of use (no technical training required). The resulting video may not have been of broadcast quality, but it was plenty good enough for the purposes of the project, which paired teachers with coaches to review video of how teachers conducted their lessons and interacted with students in their classrooms. This sort of low cost, low stakes (teachers were not formally ‘graded’, and video captured was not part of any sort of formal review of teacher capabilities by educational authorities) interaction  with a peer to examine one’s own teaching can be quite powerful.

I remember the first time I heard my voice recorded on an answering machine message. I swore that I didn’t actually sound like that -- even though I had to concede that the other voices I heard did in fact sound exactly like what I heard on the tape! The same sort of phenomenon was experienced by many teachers in this project in Indonesia, who, by viewing how they looked and acted in the course of their normal classroom duties, were able to see their teaching from a new perspective, critically self-assessing their own individual ‘performance’ in the process. This method of catalyzing and enabling self-reflection has been used profitably in many other places (in addition to the United States, where such things have happened for quite [pdf] some [pdf] time, efforts of this sort have taken place in countries as diverse as Namibia, Macedonia and Liberia) as a tool for teachers themselves to improve their own teaching practices, both as a result of what they learned about themselves, and from interaction with peers who were also using video to analyze their own teaching.

For policymakers looking for ways to use ICTs to help improve teaching, utilizing low cost video cameras in this way can be a very cost-effective investment – especially when compared with many of the much more complicated and expensive approaches (buying all teachers a laptop, for example, or outfitting a new school computer lab) which are meant to achieve at least some similar sorts of objectives. This is not to say that such things are mutually exclusive, nor that programs to support laptops for teachers or school computer labs are misguided (although, at least for the last option, some skepticism might in some cases be in order). Rather, it is to suggest that computer- (or laptop- or tablet-) centric considerations of how to utilize information and communication technologies might preclude contemplation of some other useful approaches. In the case of low cost video recording, the fact that many low end feature phones (let alone smartphones!) already in the hands of teachers have basic video recording capability only adds to the potential feasibility of doing this sort of thing.

(Teacher self-analysis isn’t the only thing you can do with low cost video cameras in classrooms to help support teachers, of course. The DBE2 project explored a whole suite of complementary activities and approaches which took advantage of the availability of cheap, easy-to-use handheld video recording devices, including virtual 'bug-in-the-ear' support, where a teacher with Bluetooth earpiece received live coaching advice in real time; two-way Skype-enabled co-teaching of classes; the posting of teacher videos for peer comment; and the creation of ‘video portfolios’ documenting the work of teacher coaches.)


I once toured a school in Asia that was touted as doing 'transformative things with technology'. When visiting such showcase sites -- especially when accompanied by officials from government ministries -- I am under no illusion that what I am seeing is necessarily representative what is happening in other schools -- or indeed, representative of what happens in the school in question when an 'international visitor' and his/her official government minders are not around. Still, there is no substitute for experiencing things firsthand, however staged they may be.

On this particular occasion, I was talking with a very dynamic, and fast walking, schoolmaster. This fellow walked so quickly that we eventually left the rest of our official, and rather large, entourage behind. As we breezed by one open door I paused and, seeing a room with a bunch of computer monitors inside, stopped and asked what was in there. 'This is actually our best use of technology', the schoolmaster said (I am paraphrasing here, as I will for the duration of this anecdote, the specifics of which are dulled a bit by time and my lack of fluency in the local language). 'I am not sure why it is not on your itinerary to see.' I asked to see it anyway and, as it was just the two of us at that point in the tour, we ducked in the room, which he was quite eager to show me. I saw about eight or so TV monitors lined up, each showing a live feed from a classroom in the school. 'This is the best teacher evaluation and support tool ever invented', I was told. 'Watch this.' And watch I did, as the schoolmaster pointed to a screen a flipped a switch. 'Stand up straight, and speak louder', he barked into a microphone. The teacher on the screen complied and continued teaching his class. After some additional back and forth, we moved to another screen (and classroom).

After listening to a history teacher lecture for a minute or two (none of which I understood), the schoolmaster interrupted, correcting her on what he told me was a factual error, and then instructing her (I was told) to relate a specific historical anecdote. In another classroom, a few students were directed to get up and say something in English, as 'an international visitor is watching'. The principal asked me how good their English was, and said I should correct them if they made a mistake, as this was the only way they would learn. Rather uncomfortable with the whole situation, I spoke into the microphone and complimented the students, and their teacher, on the excellent quality of their spoken English. After watching this stuff for about fifteen minutes, by turns appalled and fascinated, our official entourage caught up with us and I saw my official ministry of education guide blanche when he saw what I was seeing. My impression then (and now, upon reflection) was that he had deliberately not wanted to show me this 'innovative' use of technology, out of fear that I would not be a big fan -- and would probably tell others about it (which I am obviously doing here, although I have not named the school, or indeed even the country).

good news -- you are being watched!
good news -- you are being watched!

With the cat out of the proverbial bag, we talked about the use of video cameras in the classrooms in the school. The schoolmaster was totally convinced of the efficacy and power of video technology to improve teaching -- and indeed, to motivate teachers. 'As schoolmaster, I am responsible for overseeing and mentoring all of the teachers in my school', he said. 'The teachers like it when I can help them improve. I can't be in all of the classrooms but with this technology I can quickly monitor and support many teachers during the day.' I later talked with a few teachers about this use of video (which I just admit I found rather startling, to say the least, and certainly not something I would ever file under 'good practice'). Some sample comments: 'Schoolmaster ___ wants to support us in everything we do. The use of the video system helps us to become better teachers and make sure that we do not teach our students incorrect things or teach in ineffective ways.' and: 'It is my duty to teach correctly. When I do not do so, our students may not do well on the exams and then that would not be fair.'

My strong sense at the time was that such statements were, for the most part, genuine, especially when they were expressed by the younger teachers. Opinion wasn't universal -- one of the more senior teachers, if memory serves, said something similar, but his manner suggested to me that he didn't entirely believe what he was saying, but that he knew what he was expected to say when talking about this sort of thing with a visitor. Generally speaking, however, this practice was seen to be a good thing. (The fact that the schoolmaster seemed to be quite popular among the teachers probably didn't hurt.)

When I was teaching, I most certainly would not have been happy being observed in this manner, and especially not if I would be corrected in front of my students in such an immediate and public way. I mentioned this, and commented that the use of technology in this manner may not in fact be 'transformative', as the school's use of new technologies had been described to me. In contrast, many people might say that it supported existing pedagogical paradigms, and so was the exact opposite of 'transformative'. (Left unsaid, out of respect for my hosts and a recognition that making such comments might serve more to make me feel somehow 'superior' than to help improve things in some tangible way, was my belief and hope that many 'traditional' teaching practices should be changed, and that introducing new technologies could be one trigger to help change them.) I was told in response that I did not understand the situation. The fact that the schoolmaster could monitor and support teachers in this manner was indeed 'transformative' for the way teachers conducted their lessons, and that this transformation was indeed a positive thing. Fair enough (I guess).

It *is* true, I should probably add, that we had observed via the closed circuit video system a teacher reading a newspaper at his desk. 'Stop reading the newspaper and start teaching', the schoolmaster had commanded via the intercom, and the teacher had immediately popped up and started lecturing to the class. 'Teacher ___ is lazy', the schoolmaster told me. 'He is always reading the newspaper when he should be teaching. It is important that I motivate him to become a better teacher so that the students learn and can pass their tests.'

My intention in relating this anecdote here about the use of video in one particular school is not to criticize what I observed.

  • I have told this story to many different audiences in many different countries over the years, and have seen it -- not surprisingly -- heavily criticized in some quarters (by educational researchers in the United States, for example, and by teachers in Germany).
  • I have also seen it celebrated. After relating this story in meetings in one Southeast Asian country, for example, I was asked by school principals what it would cost for them to set up such a system in their schools (and if the World Bank could help them do so!). One education minister from another part of the world even told me that it was one of the best uses of technology in a school setting that he had ever heard about.

Rather, it is to highlight the fact that the adoption of new technologies in schools is, at least in my experience, not always as immediately 'transformative' in ways that some of the most impassioned educational technology advocates may desire, as such adoption is almost always constrained (or in some cases, enabled) by preexisting social norms and pedagogical traditions. (Such a statement may seem so obvious that it does not even need to be made, but in my experience in working with the use of educational technologies, it is quite often worth repeating some things that may at times be considered 'blatantly obvious' to outsiders or newcomers to the field, especially where the 'insiders' are so entranced with the technology themselves that larger perspectives fade into the distance.)

That said, the more technology is put directly into the hands of students and teachers themselves, the greater the likelihood that some of them will find novel (perhaps even subversive) uses for such technology that are indeed transformative -- in a good way. Whether the benefits of doing this outweigh the costs will depend on the context.

Rigging up expensive closed circuit television systems is, perhaps, one potential way to utilize video to help teachers improve their teaching. Bringing in trained videographers to record teachers in their classrooms, and having the results analyzed by external evaluators, is another. (It should be noted that certain [pdf] schemes of this sort may be lightning rods for controversy.) Giving teachers low cost video cameras so that they can film themselves teaching -- and then review the footage themselves, possibly together with their peers in informal settings -- is still another option. Some approaches to using video to improve teaching, and support teachers, can cost a lot. Others: not so much. The results can be different too.


A final question: This morning I read a recent post by Mary Burns on the GPE blog, If We ‘Text’ It, Will They Learn?, which explores how mobile phones can deployed to support teacher professional development, especially in low income countries. In the blog post, a quite useful chart lists various 'features' of mobile phones, how these features can support teacher learning, and then provides a few related real-world examples. The final feature listed is 'video', and mention is made that "teachers can share video examples of a procedure they are trying out in class" and "teachers can view video examples of desired practice". However, I find it interesting that no concrete examples are listed of projects that actually are doing these things. Anecdotally there is of course evidence of this happening in ad hoc ways in certain places (including, for what it's worth, within the context of the DBE project in Indonesia), but I am unaware of any project that is seeking to use phones systematically in this manner. If anyone knows of examples, please feel free to add them in the comments section below. I would love to be able to cite such practical examples when discussing with education policymakers the potential to use video to support teachers in schools. Once, when I seemed to make some progress in this regard, I was told in response that, while this seemed like an interesting idea, the ministry of education had already purchased digital cameras for use in schools in a previous project. Many had been stolen, however, and so the finance ministry would be leery of any new project that sought to purchase lots more of them. That's unfortunate, I replied. But have you considered the fact that many of your teachers already have video cameras in their classrooms? They are built into their phones. Perhaps you might consider a small pilot project using the technology that some teachers already have, know how to use, and will ensure will not be stolen, as a way to demonstrate proof-of-concept, both to yourselves and the ministry of finance, in a very low cost way?


Note: The image at the top of this blog post of two African students using an inexpensive Flip camera ("smile and say 'PISA!'") comes from Erik Hersman. Discovered using the Creative Commons search tool, it comes via Flickr and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license (CC BY 2). Those not familiar with Hersman's work may wish to check out Afrigadget, a great website he founded that is "dedicated to showcasing African ingenuity". The second image is a screenshot of the cover of the World Bank publication "Inside Indonesia's Mathematics Classrooms : A TIMSS Video Study of Teaching Practices and Student Achievement", which is available via the World Bank's Open Knowledge Repository. The third image ("how am I doing? (and what do I look like when I am doing it?)") is of a classroom supported under the Decentralized Basic Education project in Indonesia. It was located via a blog post on the USAID website, New Teaching Methods and Resources Transform Indonesian School. As it comes from USAID, it is in the public domain. (USAID, by the way, maintains a small repository of its public domain images for free download.) The last image of a sign in German noting that an area is under video surveillance  ("good news -- you are being watched!") comes from the Wikipedian Warmito (actually a married couple) via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Many thanks to Mary Burns of EDC (whose book Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models and Methods is an invaluable source of practical examples of how ICTs can be used to support teacher professional development) for related background information and insights.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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