Guest Blog Good effort, but could do better By Alom Shaha

Our fourth Guest blog is by Alom Shaha who gives his verdict on free educational science videos on the net. Alom is a physics teacher and film-maker. He has written, produced and directed TV programmes about science. He is also responsible for the web and video based project www.whyscience.co.uk.

It’s the summer holidays and there’s finally enough time for teachers like me to do those things that never quite got done during the school year. One of the things I’ve been meaning to do for some time is put together a list of educational science videos which are freely available on the web and link them to the appropriate bits of the schemes of work I use at school.

I work at a school which has an interactive whiteboard in virtually every classroom and videos play a key role in many of our lessons. Whiteboards have revolutionized the use of videos in the classroom – gone are the days when students would cluster around a tiny television to watch a dodgy VHS copy of a far-too-long documentary about the dangers of smoking. Today, we can use videos as a truly valuable teaching tool and not just a way of covering up for the fact that we haven't prepared our lesson and want to shove the kids in front of a video for an hour while we catch up on our sleep.

There has been lots written on the benefits of using video for teaching science, much of which seems to make the same couple of points – firstly that animations and other forms of visualization can help get across difficult concepts such as the behaviour of particles or cells and secondly, that we can use videos to show experiments and demonstrations that we couldn’t otherwise do. My own view is that, where possible, we should use videos to supplement rather than replace live demonstrations. However, most science teachers will have had the horrible experience of a demonstration that failed to work and a video back-up is a great way to deal with this. Videos are also a great way to take another look at a demonstration or experiment that you’ve already done without having to set it up again. But we can do even more with science videos - we can use them in the classroom to enthuse, inspire and stimulate debate and we can even help students to make their own videos as a new and exciting way of getting them to engage with the subjects they study.

Like a lot of schools, my school subscribes to a service called ClickView, which provides a large catalogue of educational films from which to choose from and also allows the school to record TV programmes and play them back in the classroom. Whilst useful, this service has a couple of problems – it’s expensive and it doesn’t necessarily have the kind of videos I want to use in my lesson. For example, the only video available on my school’s ClickView catalogue for teaching nuclear radiation features the kind of script and presenters that have fuelled so many educational video parodies. The film is horribly dated and I think I'd be doing more harm than good by showing it to my students. ClickView's recording facility is useful, but I very rarely want to show a full-length documentary in class.

This is where videos from the web can come into their own: they tend to have short running times and can be up-to-date in their information content and appearance (do not underestimate how off-putting it can be for children to see something explained to them by pre 21st century presenters). And best of all – they’re free.

There are a quite a few sites that have set out to provide teachers with free video content – www.teachers.tv and www.science.tv for example. If you're prepared to spend some time looking on the web, you can find videos to help with just about every aspect of science teaching – from the history of particle physics to the debates surrounding stem cell research to great demonstrations that you simply couldn’t do in the classroom. There are didactic videos including lectures and demonstrations, short documentary films which can be useful for teaching the “how science works”  aspect of the curriculum and, my favourites, the student-made films which can often provide a refreshingly original take on subjects. Some of these films are made with production values which are indistinguishable from those on “proper’ TV, others are made by enthusiastic geeks in their bedrooms.

The web is teeming with free science videos that can brighten up science lessons, making both teaching and learning better and easier. But there are problems. The first is that there are simply way too many of these videos and it’s a lot of work to track down which ones are worth using in your lesson. I’m convinced that pretty much all the video content I need to teach science effectively is out there…I’m just not sure where. I have spent hours and hours trawling through the internet to find good free videos and I have been frustrated by the fact that there’s not one place I can go to for all my science video needs. There are some good sites, for example the BBC’s Learning Zone has a site where you can search for clips from the BBC archive, but these vary in quality and aren’t always as good as other free videos.

The Wellcome Trust, NESTA and other large science research bodies have all funded web-based films which could be of use to science teachers. Some of these films are fantastic, but they are often hidden away on a website you've never heard of or publicized so poorly that the teachers who need them never hear of them. These films would reach much wider audiences, and be easier for people like me to find, if they were not “exclusive” to the websites of the organizations who fund them but also posted on sites like youtube and vimeo and made embeddable and downloadable so that people can share them and help distribute them. Sure, youtube and vimeo are blocked in some schools, but there are ways round that, either by getting the I.T. department to help or by using a site like keepvid.com.

The second problem with freely available videos from the web is that, unless you watch them yourself, it can be hard to be sure of the quality and factual accuracy of these films.

Both these problems could be solved with the creation of a large, freely accessible database, one which was built in such a way that teachers could add videos to it and help rate and tag videos so that searching for just the kind of video you want is made easy. Add some worksheets, lesson plans or just suggestions for use and we’d have a pretty fantastic teaching resource. 

In his 1995 book "The Road Ahead", Bill Gates predicted that the internet would "bring together the best work of countless teachers". There are signs that he was right, but we have a long way to go. A good database of free educational videos would be a valuable step forward along the road Gates envisioned. Until such a thing exists, here’s a few of my favourite free videos:
The Mousetrap Chain Reaction – great demonstration of how a nuclear fission chain reaction works (a model I’m determined to build for myself one day…

My favourite student-made video is The Geiger-Müller Groove but since it’s not embeddable, I’ve got a second choice for you here – a film about Newton’s Laws, which is not quite perfect in its accuracy, but good enough. Richard Dawkins explaining how the eye evolved. Cell Division – why have a diagram when you can see the real thing?

Finally, this is one of my favourite science films but I’ve not managed to use it in any of my lessons yet.

Alom Shaha is a physics teacher at a comprehensive school in North London. He has also written, produced and directed TV programmes about mathematics and particle physics , and has worked on TV series ranging from Horizon to Science Shack. He also wrote, produced and directed a number of the science clips on the BBC Learning Zone Classroom Clips  site and recently created and produced the web and video-based project www.whyscience.co.uk.

 

 

 

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