Allen Sens is a senior instructor in the Department of Political Science at UBC.
A 2003 recipient of the UBC Killam Teaching Prize, he is consistently finding new forms of teaching to effect greater learning. For his Introduction to Global Politics course (Poli 260), Prof. Sens created a video lecture series so his students could learn political concepts outside the classroom.
ArtsWIRE spoke with Prof. Sens about the effectiveness of the new video series, and what he learned from using it a teaching tool.
Q: What made you want to create this video lecture series?
Sens: There were a number of motives. Firstly, I noticed there was a lot of content in the classroom that was taking up a lot of time. I felt very rushed in class, to get out what I thought were the core issues.
Secondly, there was some content and some issues that students would keep asking questions about. They would come after classes, during office hours, and say I didn’t quite understand that. And I realized – I think it’s taken for granted now – that students can go back and learn things on their own time and their own conditions, and repeat the experience. There were certain core content items that naturally lent themselves to being captured on video. So that a) I could go over it in classroom really quickly, and b), it freed up more time for me to do class work, to have students do activities instead of just hear me lecture.
Thirdly, it allows the students to go back and watch the lectures on their own time, and to repeat them when they choose.
So for those reasons, it just struck me that shooting a few scenes that cover core content would be a really good idea. And I think it’s worked out fairly well so far.
Q: How do the lecture videos augment your classroom time? Do you request your students view the videos before coming into class?
Sens: Not before. I tell them, look, there’s a video lecture on this topic, so we’re not going to cover it in class. We’re doing this instead.
I tell them, the video is important, it’s required, it’s examinable content. And I say to them, if there are any questions about the video, bring it up next class, we’ll talk about it then.
The videos are not supplemental to the course, they are required viewing for the course.
Q: Most of your videos explain concepts by showing your hand writing and drawing them out on a white board. It’s a creative tactic similar to some lectures from the Khan Academy and Sir Ken Robinson. Do you see an advantage with presenting topics this way?
Sens: Yes I do. The advantages of using the white board or a computer-generated equivalent, is that you have the opportunity to use visuals. So you not only have an audio experience, you have a graphic experience, and that allows you to illustrate a concept in ways you wouldn’t be able to do if you were just a talking head.
I know we have a tendency to not really think about learning styles as much anymore. But it’s nevertheless the case that many students absorb the material much more effectively if they have a graphic representation of it. Some people just get it faster. So by doing that, I think the videos provide that additional learning element.
It sort of becomes a chalk talk. And there’s nothing I’m doing in these videos that I do any different in the classroom. It’s exactly the same.
Q: The videos are all around the 10-minute mark. Do you find that shorter videos are more effective than lecture-length videos with a student audience?
Sens: That was my initial thought. But it turns out I overplayed it. The feedback we got back from students was that five to eight minutes was all they could handle. The attention spans started to wane and they started to feel like the videos would drag after that point.
If I had to do it over again, I’d try to keep them between five and eight minutes. The key is actually to be really focused on the core of the content, on the “need-to-know” components rather than the “nice-to-know” stuff.
So you force yourself to go back and ask yourself what’s essential and what’s tangential, and that was an interesting experience.
Q: Does the lack of interaction with your audience pose a problem?
Sens: I don’t think so. If you were doing this through distance education or a mixed-mode delivery course, I think you would want some kind of interactive component. So for example you may want to do an online Skype-type experience so you can have an online chat about it.
If I were to do a course like that, it would have to have an interactive element, because that really is the classroom element. The videos capture what I would do in a classroom on a blackboard. And then when hands go up in the classroom, that’s when we have a dialogue. That’s missing in the videos. I replace it by having the activity in the classroom, which ties in to the video. So that’s great. But the downside is that there isn’t that immediate follow-up. A student can’t view the video and immediately say, ‘But what about this?’
I try to make sure students bring in those ‘Hey, what about this?’-type questions into class.
Q: Have you received any feedback from your students about the videos?
Sens: Yes, we did an assessment with Arts ISIT. We sent out a survey to students, and it was generally very favourable. That’s where the idea of the videos being too long came from.
Once you drop out the gratuitous comments some students will make – ‘What were you wearing?’ – most of them thought that the material was a useful addition to the course.
Q: And have you noticed a change in retention rates of the material since you began using the videos?
Sens: I don’t have any data for it. All I’ve got is anecdotal evidence that their exam questions, when specifically targeted at those content items, did seem to be a bit better.
But again, that just might be me reading that in.
Q: Thus far, you’ve posted 13 videos to YouTube. Do you have plans to create more videos in the future?
Sens: Yes I do. None of them are in the works yet, but I’ve got some ideas. The university is exploring ways of teaching beyond the classroom space and thinking about how it can make better use of online delivery. So I do have some thoughts.
I think with these videos, it feels very formal. I look and act very formal. Part of what I wanted to do was find a balance between being accessible and being informative. To let students know that this is still serious, it’s not a comedy clip on YouTube. But at the same time, looking back at them now, I could have brought more levity into them, I could have been more engaging, I could have been less formal.
So maybe next time I might overcompensate and do a Rick Mercer-type walk-and-talk. But on the other hand, you risk having entertainment value obscure the academic and intellectual piece of the video, and that is really the core piece.
Q: Would you encourage your fellow faculty members to create video lecture series for their courses?
Sens: Absolutely. We all teach in different ways, we all teach different materials, but I think a lot of my colleagues would find that doing supplementary videos or a mixed-mode delivery would be really helpful.
I think the jury is out on just how far we want to go with this and just how frequent. I made 13 videos, and they’re all about 10 minutes long. Well you add that up, that’s a fair amount of extra time that students are investing in watching this. The key is, are we piling on more material by going the video direction? If you had to speculate that the student of the future is watching two to three hours of video per class, and they’re taking five courses, you’re piling on a fair amount of additional time investment. To me, they’re about not “adding more,” they’re about, “instead of.” Instead of me talking about that material in class, we’re going to do a different kind of educational activity that is going to have a different value.
I think we have to be careful because if we go crazy with this, we’re going to find the average time a student invests in a course is going to be going up. And that will have diminishing returns.
Q: From a faculty point of view, how have these videos helped the way you teach at UBC?
Sens: They’re helpful because they allow you to capture content that you know students really want to have. They are key concepts that don’t change much from year to year. They are enduring concepts in the discipline. They are frameworks, theories, ideas, and they don’t change that much. And so the videos have a long shelf life. I think for concepts like that, they’re very valuable.
But ultimately, professors all teach different content and teach a different way. And my fellow faculty members each has to find their own way, including not using them at all.
Allen Sens (Ph.D, Queen’s) specializes in international relations, with a research and teaching focus on international security. He is co-coordinator of the Terry Project and the related Global Citizenship Seminar Series. He is also the co-author of Global Politics: Origins, Currents, Directions (Scarborough, ON: Thomson Nelson, 2010).
Prof. Sens teaches the POLI 374 (International Peacekeeping), POLI 260 (Introduction to Global Politics), Hist 425 (Modern War and Society) and ASIC 200 (Global Issues) courses at the UBC Point Grey campus.