London, United Kingdom
The use of video is a valuable way of presenting engaging content to students, as well as providing them with an option for self-paced learning. Implementing lecture recordings to give learners choice on how to access content, ask questions, and prepare for assessments, has made the course Multivariable Calculus, within the Department of Mathematical Sciences, a winning case at the 2018 Blackboard and VLE Awards. The awards are promoted by the University of Southampton to highlight and disseminate innovative approaches in the use of the virtual learning environment (VLE). Since 2012, the initiative has recognized best practices among the 65 study areas offered by the institution.
Chris Howls, Professor of Applied Mathematics within the Mathematical Sciences Department, director of the University Doctoral College at the University of Southampton, and head of the awarded course, started to record lectures in order to improve access to content and provide students with more opportunities to learn. He says the idea came to him from a personal experience and was inspired by an everyday observation. “I started using videos when I realized how my teenage daughter was studying for math exams. I noticed that she often went to YouTube and looked for explained problems. Suddenly, the light bulb went on over my head and I realized that this was the way of obviously catching the students’ attention and help them review content.”
His experience in implementing embedded videos was preceded by a more elementary use of the virtual learning environment. He mentions that he used another website to support his classes when the VLE was not used as widely as it is nowadays, and as a result, the module did not have many of the available features the institution has at its disposal today.
“Years ago, in the math department, we all used websites, and when the university adopted Blackboard Learn, it became so much easier to use the VLE to give all the necessary information on courses. Lecture notes, problem sheets, post-exam papers that students needed… everything has become much easier to put in the VLE.”
Having a standard VLE has brought many benefits to the faculty such as access to automated feedback, and resources to support struggling learners. Thanks to this, professors know the difficulties students are facing and can help them by generating and embedding content on the VLE that addresses doubts for many students at once.
According to Howls, leveraging VLE features has become a norm at the University of Southampton, and a set of requirements was defined so every course provides specific features and digital content. “Now students know if they go to the VLE they will find a certain level of information. It is very convenient for learners to count on the content they are expecting to receive and know where they can find it.”
Expanding Learning Opportunities
Every student has a unique learning process, so flexibility to keep up with content helps them to find the most suitable method to their learning style. Video lectures can benefit students in different ways, depending on their needs, preferences, or available time. In addition, using embedded videos is a time-saving approach, and helps students that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity or the confidence to ask questions during lecture.
“It is human nature to avoid looking like you do not understand when others do. But in the VLE, students can watch the lecture as many times as they need. So it might be that they don’t ask the question at the lecture and then watch the videos that address the issue. They also might come afterward and ask me to record a video that addresses what they need. I often get private emails asking me that.”
“I could meet the struggling student individually, or I could just record a video and upload it – then it will be useful for the whole class – and if there are other students with the same problem, they benefit from it. If you can provide them with the video, it is almost like being with each one of them,” he adds.
Embedded videos are also used to reinforce some points, such as revising content or to achieve a more self-paced access to the content. Howls points out that students use recorded lectures as a supplemental resource for face-to-face classes, often to support homework. “I might record a video on a problem similar to the homework, so they watch the videos on Blackboard Learn in order to have a clearer idea of how to solve it.”
Another added benefit to using embedded video is the ability to receive automatic feedback by tracking students’ interactions with the resources provided. By doing so, faculty can monitor which content learners are accessing and know which parts of the course, or even the topics within a particular lecture, students are finding difficult. This enables faculty to focus on examples to solve specific problems and address student difficulties.
Method and Discipline
In short, the method adopted by Professor Howls to provide students with a blended learning approach consists of a two-step process: first, recording lectures and second, embedding the videos into Blackboard Learn, thus making a virtual video library with lessons and math problems available to students. He explains how it works:
“I record the videos using Panopto or on an iPad using Explain Everything. These are uploaded to our local CourseCast repository. I then embed the videos as a web link within Blackboard Learn. I have folders, each one covering a particular topic, with video lectures and work examples, and students can access them whenever they like. I really enjoy having learned to use Blackboard Learn. It takes a little extra knowledge to embed the videos, but once you learn it, it gives you plenty of resources,” says Howls.
He also points out that as important as the chosen method is also the staff’s consistency and persistence. “Regardless of the method, it is essential to build a workflow dedicated to the VLE. When we have a routine, students know there will regularly be interesting new materials when they access the digital content. And once you establish an efficient workflow, stick with it,” he shares.
Disseminating Embedded Videos
Award winners are encouraged to share best practices and the winning features with their peers through a series of workshops. Professor Howls is already encouraging staff to enhance blended learning through embedded videos.
Due to the success of the video lectures, Prof. Howls decided to contribute to the increased use of this resource across the institution. And so, he campaigned towards this goal, and, along with colleagues, launched a library of videos.
“From the point of view of inspiring my colleagues, what I managed to do was to inspire a colleague to set up a recording club. During vacation, we put everything aside for a few days and recorded what ended up to be 20 hours’ worth of mathematical problems. The math will not change, so once we record the lectures, it can be used whenever we want,” shares Howls.
The initiative is ongoing, but the number of videos is already large, and the recorded lectures are available to all modules within the Department of Mathematical Sciences. “We are building a library with these problems, and now, more and more people are recording and sharing videos. We were motivated by the success we had last year so it was easy to convince colleagues, and we hope this will lead to a broader use of VLE in mathematics,” he explains.
Having achieved good outcomes by implementing embedded video to support students and create a time-saving approach for faculty, Howls intends to share his knowledge and expertise across other departments and encourage professors with a more ‘traditional approach’ to learning.
“Many professors adopted technology and are very keen, and now we want to stimulate the more traditional staff members. I’m planning to give lectures to colleagues of other subject areas that might be interested in doing this. When I do workshops, how to overcome initial blockage is one of the main points. Some people worry about hearing their voices on a video, for example. When I record a video, I feel like I’m talking to a person, not to a class,” concludes Howls.
Chris Howls, Professor of Applied Mathematics within the Mathematical Sciences Department and Director of the University Doctoral College at the University of Southampton.
AFP Glyn Kirk