By Kyle Purpura
In the early 90s, I began teaching accelerated economics courses in the international high school where I was employed. Although the language of instruction was English, over half of my students were non-native English speakers. This meant that I had to be cognizant that some of the course materials I inherited, such as the 600-page textbook, might not always be the best choice for a few of the members of the class. So from the outset of the year, I found myself on the lookout for relevant, suitable, palatable course materials to supplement what I had inherited.
Enter Phil Holden, the “Godfather of YouTube Economics.” Although we might be tempted to think otherwise, YouTube has only been with us since 2005. By 2006, Phil Holden, a charming economics teacher from a small, British international school in Greece, began publishing a series of straightforward, 5-20 minute videos focusing on various aspects of economic analysis. Filmed from a flip-cam mounted on a tripod, Phil’s videos consisted of him standing in front of a board, diagramming, explaining, and analyzing economic models and events.
The videos were technically simple, but Phil’s mastery of the content and his delightfully upbeat presentation made them something really special. They were obviously the product of a passion: making economics accessible to an audience that did not necessarily learn efficiently from reading economics textbooks. With permission, I downloaded every one of Phil’s videos and began sharing them with my classes. My students loved them.
There came a point where students would ask for a demonstration of something Phil’s videos hadn’t touched upon. So, I was motivated to make my first video (truth be told, I was also motivated by a desire to be just like Phil). So armed with a tripod and flip-cam, and wearing – for some inexplicable reason – a salmon-colored shirt, I shot the raw footage for my first video. I was nervous.
Don’t ask me why I was edgy, because it was just me, the whiteboard, and the camera. I hit the little red record button, and walked to my mark in front of the white board. I was awkward and felt wooden. I halted, stammered, and stuttered. Somewhere in the back of my mind though, I knew I could edit some of the stuttering out later. Finally, I finished! And then I edited (and edited, and edited), completing the process by publishing my very first YouTube video to my newly minted YouTube channel.
On Monday, I showed my students the video. The feedback was tough and hopeful all at the same time. Students didn’t love the piece as much as they loved Phil’s stuff, but they appreciated that I took the time to create and share something that could help them with the course. That was all I needed to hear.
Motivated to create better and better course content, I shot more and more videos, finding the process easier with each passing shoot and subsequent editing session. After the fifth video with me in front of the camera, I switched tactics, taking up screencasting instead of me in front of the camera. Through narrated, animated PowerPoints, I was able to focus more on the nitty gritty of the econ diagrams, while still providing “color commentary” with my recorded thoughts. Screencasting, as opposed to me on camera, allowed me to be more comfortable and to create better quality videos. I found that being behind the microphone was much more natural for me than being in front of the camera.
My students loved the new screencasts, every bit as much as they loved Phil’s stuff. Often they would tell me that they used both sets of videos – mine and Phil’s – in tandem with one another. Students also loved that they could ask me to create a video on a certain topic, and that I would have one finished within a day or two. And I certainly loved making them. The screencast format allowed me to easily fill in the skill and content gaps that students were sometimes experiencing. I could also tailor the video content to address the particular questions my students were asking.
But did this strategy produce positive outcomes? Now that I am no longer in the classroom, it’s a question I often ask myself. The answer is, “I think so.”
When I consider my students’ average scores on externally moderated exams, their scores increased after 2007/08, which is about the time I began to shoot my own vid-casts. This makes sense to me, as many of my students were kids whose first language was not English and had a fairly difficult time with advanced level textbooks. The videos distilled complex information and ideas so that they could better follow along; plus, if students were viewing at home, they could pause and go back back to information to hear and see for a second or a third time.
On the other hand, the increase in students’ median scores could have also been the result of other factors: changes in examination formats, a teacher who felt more engaged now that he was creating his own content, differences in class sizes, differences in international schools, etc.
Nonetheless, I believe that my strategy paid off – that better outcomes were attributable to my created video content. Students benefited because they could modify the speed of the course content at home to suit their different abilities to process information. They could also copy down and repeat in writing the step-by-step analysis that I highlighted in my videos. And they could show me – by pausing a video in class – where they were having problems in their understanding of the material. And students knew that they could request a new video of me at any time … which I delighted in accommodating.
Over ten years and almost a million channel views later, econ students from all over the world still contact me. “Mr. P, could you maybe make a video on …”
Kyle Purpura is an Instructional Designer and Trainer for Christian Brothers University’s Center for Digital Instruction. He holds an Educational Technology Master’s Degree from Boise State University and has served as a technology trainer and content developer in higher education overseas, as well as a high school administrator.