Thursday, October 13, 2005


Educational Films, Still the Future of Learning

The last three online movie recommendations I have made were all educational in some way. When my friend Tom (who encouraged me to start this blog) invented movies, he had high hopes that they would revolutionize education. He said:

“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system, and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of text-books in our schools. Books are clumsy methods of instruction at best, and often even the words of explanation in them have to be explained.

“I should say that on the average we get only about two per cent efficiency out of school books as they are written to-day. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture, a visualized education, where it should be possible to obtain one-hundred-per-cent-efficiency.

“The motion picture has tremendous possibilities for the training and development of the memory. There is no medium for memory-building as productive as the human eye.”

He explained the logic behind his bold claims of movies replacing books as the primary means of education:

“Most of our textbooks fail on two big counts. They are not sufficiently human, and their application is not sufficiently practical. Their tendency seems to be to look upon the whole process of education as a job of dull and uninteresting work-with the apparent argument that the duller and more uninteresting it is made the more credit there is for doing it.

“When we have tried to change that viewpoint we have used too much sugar coating, and have applied too many fanciful “isms,” and have gone to the opposite extreme. Education isn’t play- and it can’t be made to look like play. It is hard, hard work. But it can be made interesting work.”

Well, movies did not replace books in schools*. Certainly I remember some class films** when I was in school, but they were much less common than doing work out of textbooks. I think one reason that movies have a difficult time replacing books is that the expense of film and projectors made watching movies a group activity for the whole class. Being a group activity, all the students must learn at the same pace. A book, on the other hand, can be taken home and the student can re-read material he doesn’t understand. Also, a book could more easily be taken home and used as reference material for homework assignments. The self-paced nature of reading and handiness of books as reference materials will likely ensure that books remain a big part of education for the foreseeable future.

Instead of replacing books, perhaps Tom should have considered using them to replace teachers. You obviously couldn’t get rid of teachers entirely, but like automation does for mfg. workers, the use of films could greatly increase the productivity of teachers. The best professors and teachers on a topic could be filmed giving their lectures, and those lectures could be used to replace a large amount of the in-person lectures a teacher has to give. That would free up more time for the teacher to spend with students one-on-one, or allow you to reduce the number of teachers needed. Perhaps the movies could be done by the same companies that sell textbooks, and the reputation and quality of the lecture films would be an additional selling point for the publisher. A movie of the best instructor’s lecture will probably be inferior to personal lectures by a very good teacher, since the teacher who is there in-person can adjust his lecture to the students and respond to their attitude and comprehension. But think back to your own school experience… How many of your teachers were really good, inspiring teachers that connected with the students? Probably only a few out of your entire school experience. For each of those very good teachers there was probably one or more who just stood in front of the class reading blandly from the textbook or years-old course notes. The fact is that most teachers are mediocre instructors. If you don’t think that a movie lecture done by top notch instructors with quality film-making crew and a large enough budget for location shots and effects could be as educational as a personal lecture from a typical school teacher, then maybe you haven’t seen really good educational shows***, like Sir David Attenborrough’s Life on Earth or the original Connections series. I know I learned more and was more inspired by such shows on a per hour basis than over 90% of my grade school teachers could accomplish, and I went to pretty good schools. Monday I linked to streaming audio of Western Civ. lectures by the late George L. Mosse; wouldn’t it be great to have videos of lectures by history’s best instructors that could be available to future generations of students. I would be shocked if using such high quality educational films supplemented by personal attention to answer questions and reinforce problem areas didn’t provide a better education at less money than current school practices. Honestly, this isn’t that much different from having a world famous professor give lectures to an auditorium of hundreds of students and then having TA’s handle grading and labs while the professor sets his miniscule office hours to make himself almost unavailable to the average student. That arrangement seems to be sufficiently adequate for some our nation’s most expensive colleges, who by the way are generally considered far superior to public education.

Another possible reason why Tom’s prediction of widespread use of movies in education didn’t come true may have to do with the fact that our school system isn’t primarily in the education business. It is more concerned with being a state babysitting service, a self-esteem workshop, an NEA member makework program, and perhaps a AAA sports farm team administrator. If teacher productivity were drastically increased by use of top notch educational films matched to the textbooks then we would need less teachers, and the teacher’s union wouldn’t stand for efficient instruction of our children if it comes at their expense. No doubt they would attack widespread use of educational films as being inferior to personal instruction. Which I admitted it is… IF the teacher doing the instructing is really good and can connect with the students. But I don’t think, for example, that the vast majority of schoolteachers could present the evolution of modern science and engineering as well as something like James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed. You would think that the lazy teachers would embrace educational films to replace their own work, and in fact I have a friend who says their public school did that frequently by herding multiple classes together and having one teacher keep order during the film while the others went off to the faculty lounge. It doesn’t seem widespread, however, which leads me to suspect that it is either due to habit and prejudice (that good teaching must be labor intensive) or due to not wanting to look like they are collecting a teacher’ salary to do movie usher work.

I had one professor who did a great job of using movies to improve his productivity. He would assign and grade problem sets, but he would never go over the answers in class. He would film himself solving all of the homework problems for each problem set on the blackboard in an empty room, and explaining each step in the problem solving process. When you got your graded homework back, if you had a question on why you missed a particular problem, you went to the library and watched the film of the professor solving it. That way he could spend the entire class time conducting lectures and the student’s didn’t have to sit bored as he went over all the problems they got right while they waited for him to explain the one problem they didn’t understand. Presumably he assigned the same problems every year, so he didn’t need to remake the movies unless the textbook changed. Students only needed to watch the film of him solving the problems that they had questions on, so it saved everyone’s time. The professor was available during office hours to give additional explainations if you still didn’t understand his movie, but I never needed it. I also found that watching all of his problem set movies back-to-back was a great way to review before a test. I don’t think Tom had this specific application in mind when he was promoting the usefulness of movies in education, but it is still a good example of how creative use of movies can greatly increase a teacher’s productivity. Unfortunately most teachers aren’t that imaginative with labor saving technology.

I accused our education system of not being primarily in the business of educating kids, but there are organizations where the risk or cost of poorly educated people is sufficiently high that teaching people well and efficiently does get a high priority. The military and private businesses often fall into those categories, and they have both embraced using movies to provide quality, standardized instruction for over half a century. Rapidly improving communication technology is revolutionizing distance learning and perhaps that will also provide an avenue for greater use of movies in education, especially for valuable but uncommon skill sets and degrees where the density of students is too low to support a large number of conventional schools or training classes spread all over the country.

Tom seemed to be thinking mostly**** about formal schooling when he discussed using movies in education. Movies, and other forms of video, have really succeeded in the competitive business environment of informal education of both children and adults where the convenience of getting the information and usefulness of the medium in conveying technical information relatively painlessly are strong advantages for video. Learning can be fun and/or useful enough that people outside of schools want to do it. Even people who hate the drudgery or structure of schoolwork often enjoy watching an interesting documentary or a do-it-yourself home improvement show. There are over a dozen TV channels dedicated to educational programs, and customers who want even more technical video programs can order them from several online businesses that specialize in educational movies. Nonfiction books are still big business, but in the competitive private sector it seems that Tom’s thinking hit closer to the mark.

The development of modern computers and electronic networks might make using movies in education easier and more common. One of the difficulties in using films in formal education is simply the logistics. Assuming that you used 8mm film, it takes a 7 inch diameter reel holding 400 feet of film to store a half-hour lecture. If a class of students were shown 15 hours of educational films a week for 35 weeks, then that would take over a thousand reels of film. An elementary school making regular use of educational films to supplement textbooks and personal instruction might easily require over 10,000 reels storing over 750 miles of film. They would need to be stored properly. Someone would be required to pull the lectures for the next day’s classes, shelve the previous lectures, and fix or replace damaged films. Each class would need projectors and there would have to be spares, preventive maintenance, and replacement of broken projectors. School employees would have to be trained in storing films, working the projectors, and some amount of repair skills. If lecture films matching school textbooks were widespread, none of this is a serious obstacle to a school that wanted to use them. After all, most schools already have libraries, librarians, various forms of specialized equipment, and maintenance staff. But for a school that doesn’t really want to use films (or just change the standard way of doing business) these logistical efforts and cost do represent a good excuse to do nothing. For homeschoolers, small businesses, or curious individuals, the trouble and expense of regular use of educational or training films might represent a real obstacle. The development of modern video formats and equipment such as DVD’s and streaming video has eliminated a lot of the hassle of dealing with a large volume of video information. Now films can be stored, transported, and displayed using compact formats and reliable, easily operated consumer electronics. Discovery Communications has already set up a business providing streaming educational videos online to both schools and homeschooling families. Now that the logistics excuse has been practically eliminated, we may see more widespread use of educational movies.

One of the advantages I stated above for books was their handiness as a reference, but with modern technology movies can be pretty handy too. Now using laptop computers or portable DVD players, you are no longer required to watch the movie inside a theater or specially equipped room. You can take the video outside to the subject you are observing or over to the equipment you are operating. This has great potential for making technical work or field work easier, since you can watch the video right where you need the information. Schoolkids can take the movies home with them to review or do homework with. Widespread use of laptop computers in schools could enable this portability for educational video in formal education, and MIT is already working on making low-cost laptops so that every schoolkid can have one. When they succeed, it will be another hurdle to widespread use of educational video that has been overcome and Tom’s dream for his invention will take another big leap forward.

The sort of educational movie Tom thought about primarily was minutes or perhaps even hours in length. It wouldn’t make sense to go to the theater and spend 5 or 10 minutes finding the right reel and setting up the projector only to watch an educational film that was just 18 seconds long. Yet, that is exactly how long the latest online educational video I recommended was. Now that modern video formats have removed the “set up” time for watching educational video and the portability of modern consumer electronics allows you to take it to wherever is most convenient, the length of useful educational movies has become much shorter. Perhaps one avenue of development in educational use of movies will be the creation of millions of very short (commercial length instead of TV show or theatrical film length) snippits of educational video. Think of them more as moving illustrations rather than movies. This sort of thing is already being used heavily in PowerPoint presentations; I think it is a short jump to larger video-illustrated documents.

If someone made a video illustration based auto repair handbook that included thousands and thousands of very short movies, each one describing and demonstrating one step in one process for working on your make and model of car, I think it would be much more useful than trying to interpret the written descriptions and static illustrations in Haynes or Chilton’s handbooks. You wouldn’t sit down and watch all the short movies; you would only find the few movies that covered the procedure that was giving you problems and watch them on a laptop or portable DVD player right there at your car. With so many cars having DVD players, perhaps video supplements to factory automotive manuals to illustrate basics of jacking, towing, jumping batteries, checking fluids, using the heated auto-adjusting seats, etc. will become common practice. I’d be shocked if the U.S. military isn’t developing these right now for their equipment maintenance training and reference needs.

Keep an eye on Wikipedia in the near future to see what a huge resource for education this might become. Right now if you look up a type of knot on this online electronic encyclopedia, you get still illustrations and written descriptions of how to tie it. Compare that with how easy it is to understand the Ian knot video I linked too. Wikipedia is already considering adding videos to help illustrate their encyclopedia entries. One of the biggest obstacles to using them now is the large amount of computer memory and network bandwidth they would require, but Moore’s Law will solve those problems soon enough. They ask rhetorically about short movies:

“How better to explain field hockey or the gait of a kangaroo?”

Perhaps some day soon when a college freshman wants to know how to fold a shirt or a grade school kid wants to know how to tie a shoelace their parents will tell them the same thing I was told when I asked my parents how to spell a difficult word: “Look it up; if I just tell you then you will never learn it for yourself.”

Make magazine had a short article on a hacker who had put the entire Wikipedia encyclopedia and several other written reference materials on a PDA so that he could have access to detailed information on a wide variety of subjects with him at all time. A video-enabled Wikipedia (or other comprehensive reference work) that included video of everything from how to fold an origami crane to what a bunt is in baseball would be many, many times larger than just current word and image based documents. Unfortunately, one of the limitations on the low cost laptops MIT is trying to make so that every schoolkid can have their own laptop computer is that they can’t afford to put much memory in them. This lack of memory means that while the laptops may allow the kids to take a few short videos home to review, they wouldn’t be able to store the huge amounts of data needed to use them as complete video-enabled reference materials like the hypothetical car or military equipment repair manuals I discussed above. Again, though, that is an engineering problem that Moore’s Law (and the dedicated work of millions of scientists, engineers, and technicians around the globe) will probably solve soon enough.

So where is Tom’s dream headed? What will the use of video (I hesitate to call it “movies”) in education be like? Well, superficially it might look like those books that Tom was trying to replace. Books are a convenient size and form factor, and researchers are already hard at work on electronically enhanced books. Instead of hundreds of pages, perhaps it will just have one (or a few) electronic displays. Maybe they would be very high quality video screens, maybe they would be lower quality thin displays that could be folded out to a larger size. Maybe it would have both. This super ebook reader could display video-enhanced textbooks. Maybe all the student’s textbooks would be stored on the reader, or maybe they would be stored on separate memory sticks that had to be physically switched out of the reader to view the material for different subjects. In addition to the normal illustrations and tables of our current “dead tree” textbooks, this one would also have short video illustration and animations to help explain the written text. Each chapter would also have several hours of video lectures done by the book author or perhaps some celebrity lecturer with location, historical, or special effects footage as needed. It might resemble an episode of Cosmos or Sesame Street more than a traditional school lecture. Teachers might video their own lectures or make their own notes and add them to the “margins” of the textbook to supplement the standard material from the publisher. The inclusion of both video lectures and written text might mean that the device needs two display screens so that the student can follow the text along with the lecture, or perhaps the one large display is smart enough to hold the lecture in a separate window, like picture-in-picture TVs. Audio speakers might be included, but headphones would usually be plugged into it for audio so you didn’t disturb other library patrons or classmates. The teachers might make the students listen to the lecture out loud on the classroom audio/video equipment though, because too many kids were caught hacking their books to allow them to listen to wireless podcasts instead of the lecture when they wore headphones in class. The student would highlight or make notes in the margins that would be stored with the book electronically. Perhaps the student works the review problems at the end of the chapter right there in the textbook, with the margins or space between problems automatically expanding to give as much room as is needed. At least some of the review problems would have the answers “in the back of the book,” though they might not be unlocked until after the student attempts the problem himself or on command from the teacher. No doubt cracking the access code to the answers would be a common pastime for mischievous students. The review problem answers would include a short video lecture or demonstration explaining how they were arrived at, much like my old professor had done with his brilliant homework solution videos. Some of those review problems might not resemble word problems as much as video games. Educational video games from the old Mavis Bacon typing game to modern military simulations have proven to be effective training devices, and perhaps the textbook would include one or more large video games, simulations, or other interactive content to compliment the text, video illustrations, and video lectures. High school English textbooks might contain entire productions of plays by various university, local, or even professional theater groups. Electronic textbooks for film studies classes would likely cost more, because of the need to pay royalties on the dozens of full length feature films included with the text. Surely this futuristic textbook replacement would have a nice bookcover to protect it, and store spare memory sticks if they are needed, that was liberally decorated with colorful flower stickers, initials drawn inside of hearts, or animated sketches of explosions and hot-rodded aircars to the student’s taste.

In short, Tom will be wrong. Movies won’t replace textbooks, but perhaps textbooks will become hyperlinked movies (among other things). Such a future textbook has already been described in the hands of a fictional schoolgirl, and maybe within the next decade or so schoolkids and adults alike will be able to have their own version of Penny Gadget’s gadget computerbook as a tremendous labor saving device for both formal and informal education. What, you thought I was talking about someone else?

Not everyone agrees (hattip: Dr. Pournelle) with Tom and I on the benefits of heavier use of video in education. I’d certainly welcome input from people who have experience with the drawbacks and advantages of using movies for training and education.

*Although if you consider advertising to be a form of consumer education, then perhaps video images do represent the majority of the total amount of education that occurs in the First World.

**Is it just me, or does young Carol have an Adam’s apple?

***Get the full length version of Life on Earth, not the edited one commonly sold in the U.S. Don’t waste your time on the later Connections sequels.

****Though he did like to brag about how early silent movies helped improve the movie going public’s reading speed and comprehension.

Update (10/14) added video game speculation

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Maybe a video-study about Sildenafil can help the children in they future.
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