Saturday, August 30, 2008

AHS Chemistry Podcasts

I first ran across the idea of podcasting Chemistry lectures about three years ago. Jean-Claude Bradley at Drexel University posted this:
A new way to teach. Having an archive of lectures available gives me a lot of added flexibility. This term I have assigned the archived lectures (podcasts and screencasts) and instead of lectures I run workshops during class time. I have the chance to interact one on one with every student who needs help with the specific problems that they have. I can use other modalities such as watch them play games or build molecular models from kits. In other words, I can be a teacher again, instead of a parakeet.
He also has a wiki with some links to his own and other university lectures that are podcasted.

I'm pretty sure I shared that with the folks in my staff development at some point and probably commented on how at least some university professors were trying to take advantage of some of the new technologies. And I recall a conversation with some folks where I mentioned this and talked about how it allowed the professor to offload the necessary (but routine) parts of his chemistry class so that he could get to the "good stuff" in class; the really interesting parts of Chemistry that he thought would grab the students' attention, but he often never had time for because he had to spend it on delivering the basics. And, as he blogged about, he wasn't worried so much about the attendance factor:
Attendance. It seems strange to me almost every article or comment on lecture podcasting assumes that a decreasing attendance is obviously a negative outcome. As educators we should be focusing on education, not counting bodies. If students are doing just as well and not attending class then that tells me that my multimedia channel is effective. This is exactly what I have observed in my online optional classes (using podcasting and screencasting), where attendance dropped to 10-20% by the last lecture.
Now flash forward to last year when Brian Hatak, one of the teachers at our school, came to me and said he had heard about these high school chemistry teachers in Woodland Park, Colorado podcasting their chemistry lectures and was wondering if we could do that. After some lengthy discussions about both the technology and the pedagogy, Brian decided to give it a shot this year:
Podcasts. Yes, chemistry podcasts.

For the past few years, I have felt frustrated with how my classroom was working. I would ask the students to read and they would act like they did, and perhaps some of them did, and then I would lecture over the material on the next class day. It seemed that the students were learning that they did not have to read since I would be covering the exact material in class. Then they would struggle on the homework problems and ask in class and earn average grades on the tests.

However, I felt as though I was doing a lot more of the problems then the students were. So, I started looking for a way to fix this.
Much like Jean-Claude Bradley at Drexel, Brian decided to try to offload the, umm, sometimes less than exciting (for some students) - but still very necessary - chemistry lecture/information delivery to outside of class. He found that he could "deliver" the necessary information in a relatively compact and cogent form via video podcast/screencast. He could take his time (and this does take some time up front) to fine tune it to make sure he hit all the points he wanted to, yet still take much less time than he used to in class (he's hoping most of the videos will be between 5 and 15 minutes, although a few will undoubtedly be longer). And, the students could watch it - or parts of it - multiple times if they needed to. Instead of frantically writing down notes in class and then later looking at them and understanding step 1 and step 3 but not having any idea of how he got from step 1 to step 3, they now could watch, pause, reflect, and re-watch until they felt pretty comfortable with the material. And, of course, they could come back to it as often as they needed to when they needed to review.

Previously Brian had been frustrated - like most teachers - with never having enough time in class. He felt like by the time he got done "covering" the material he didn't have enough time left to effectively answer student questions. He'd send them off to do homework on their own where he wasn't around to help them when they got stuck, and then feel frustrated when he'd have to go over it all again in the next class period. (Note: I think both Brian and I agree that it's not always a bad thing to struggle, but if the material is so difficult that students get frustrated and then give up - and lose their interest in Chemistry - then that's a bad thing.) So Brian decided to try to do almost the exact opposite of what he'd been doing before - have them do the lecture as homework and use class time to work with the students (much like Jean-Claude Bradley at Drexel appears to be doing). He could use class time to work with students in small groups or one-one-one, and also hopefully give him the time to explore some of the more interesting aspects of Chemistry. (Note: Our chemistry classes meet three times a week for 58 minutes on MWF, and then they have a two-hour lab once a week on either Tuesday or Thursday.)

Now, we just started school about two weeks ago, so we don't have any definitive results to share yet, but I think this shows a lot of promise. I've embedded one podcast below, but you can also visit Brian's TeacherTube channel to see all of them. He's just getting started, so still getting the hang of how to do this, but I think it's a good start.

As he progresses through the school year, Brian's also going to ask students to record some of their lab work and how they work out problems and share that out with the other students. He's really hoping to develop a community of learners, all helping each other - and future Chemistry students - learn the material.

I thought this was blogworthy in and of itself, but the story gets just a little bit better. Before the school year even began, Brian received an email from Ben, one of our students that was going to be in Brian's class. Ben had discovered what Brian had already uploaded:
I am personally very excited about the way you have decided to use technology to fundamentally change the way you run your class. The way you perceived an issue and saw how technology could be used to effectively address it is a prime example of how the expertise of teachers is key to effectively integrating technology into a class.

The screencasts you have a created are available on teachertube, which is a convenient way to view them. However, I thought that it would be even more convenient if your screencast was also a podcast. For this reason, I used several tools to turn the videos you post on teachertube into an iTunes subscribable podcast.

At this url, I have created a blog where the videos are reposted. It is the process of reposting that syndicates them into an XML format iTunes or other video podcast readers can understand. They are also available for download individually in a format that can be transferred to an iPod or viewed with Quicktime. The "PODCAST HELP PAGE" link on the sidebar goes to a website I quickly assembled that describes how to subscribe in iTunes, download episodes, or even view online with an iPhone or iPod Touch.

One of the reasons I am sending you this email is to make sure that this is acceptable to you. The screencasts are your intellectual property, after all. If it is acceptable, hopefully this will become a valuable way to access the content.
Well. Okay. Did I mention that it was still summer when this email came in?

Brian shared this with me and I suggested he email Ben so that Ben could teach us exactly how he was doing this (I was curious how he was getting the mp4 to be part of the RSS feed from Blogger so that iTunes would pick up on it) and so that Brian could give him the original mp4's so that Ben didn't have to convert them. Ben emailed us back with the details, and we are going to hopefully meet sometime next week to see what other ideas we might be able to brainstorm to make this work more effectively for the students. Ben has also given Brian rights to the blog so that he can post directly.

So give Brian some feedback on his post if you have suggestions (plus you can read about how he's having students use their cell phones instead of purchasing clickers). I'm also hoping Brian will blog soon about how he's modified a Wii to create a homemade - and much less expensive - whiteboard. As for me, I need to go mess up Ben's transcript so that he never graduates. At least he's only a Junior . . .


  1. Thanks for the kind words. Now, if people would subscribe to the podcasts and let me know things that I can do differently. I just finished a post about the Wiimote whiteboard. I am thankful of the things that we are changing but like any teacher, who really cares, I wonder if it is helping the kids. I think that it is...Changing the world, one life at a time...and not by keeping Ben in the school. Maybe he will be back later in life by choice. Stranger things have happened.

    BTW, I posted this comment to the incorrect Fischbowl post first. Sorry.

  2. Wow, how can I get in on this? I have done something similar, but the blogger page is so slick, the single click to subscribe in itunes and the down-loadable videos are great. Any chance of a tutorial on the details, from filming to viewing?

  3. Thanks for the post on this new way of thinking of what "in class work" means. The opportunity to view a lecture more than once - priceless. Thanks to Brian for "thinking outside the classroom." And of course, thanks to Ben for "summer thinking." Looking forward to more posts on this concept and of course, how it's doing with kids and Brian.

  4. Mike, I am talking to Ben, the student in my class tomorrow, about putting together a packet of information. I am also thinking about presenting at a conference and I will post anything that we come up with. From what I understand, it is a straight-forward process to get the items posted on a blog. I will have more details in a post soon.

  5. This is very exciting. It places the emphasis on learning, as opposed to teaching, and provides students access to the information in way they can use according to their individual needs.