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Virginia Journal of Education


Digital Video: An Excellent
Way to Engage Students

by Glen Bull, Eric Yoder, and John Park

Digital media offer compelling ways to engage and energize students. The power of the visual is reflected in the rise of digital video shared via the Internet. More than three-fourths of the U.S. Internet audience now watches online video. ComScore Video Metrix reports that more than 90 million viewers watched over 5 billion videos in one month on YouTube alone, an average of more than 50 videos per viewer.
These videos are being created by a digital generation. Approximately 200,000 videos per day are currently being uploaded to YouTube, the equivalent of 10,000 hours of video per day. To put this in context, since the founding of the three major U.S. networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) in 1948, approximately 1.5 million hours of programming have been created and broadcast. However, individual users have created and shared more video than that on YouTube during the last six months alone. The Digital Ethnography group at the University of Kansas reports that the typical contributors are youth working outside school. The director, Michael Wensch, recently provided an overview for the Library of Congress in “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube,” available through his website at

This phenomenon is facilitated by the ubiquitous availability of digital cameras in cell phones and other handheld devices as well as by simple drag-and-drop video editing applications, such as Picasa (available as a free download from Google at, which allow users to transfer their creations to YouTube with a click of a button.
This emerging movie-making culture presents educators with intriguing opportunities. The parallel rise of classrooms with Internet connections and projectors makes integration of digital video into teaching increasingly feasible.

For the past century, film, videocassettes and DVDs more often than not have been presented as self-contained lessons. They often replaced the teacher for the duration of the presentation. User-generated video, however, reverses this, allowing students to become creators, not just consumers, of digital content.

The instructional strategy in each content area is as important as the tools themselves. Digital video should be one component of a well-conceived unit – the tools should not upstage the content. However, short video clips embedded in the context of a larger lesson can facilitate inquiry in an engaging way.

In addition to allowing a deeper exploration of content, digital video can allow the content to be brought into the mainstream of the social network of a class. Our work with middle-schoolers suggests that students are primarily focused on two things: (1) “look at me” and (2) “look at what I can do.” Energy and passion are lost when the focus of the activity is no longer self-centered. The YouTube phenomenon is a reflection of this. Students strive to be the center of attention and by being in front of a camera or microphone to create media, they enable other users of media to look at them, and to look at what they can do. Formal schooling shifts the center of attention to the teacher and to content.

Content should always be the central focus, but if we can encourage students to explore materials that other students helped to create and that are interesting to them, we may get the best of both worlds. For example, middle school students were asked to slap cooking pots together to make a loud, sharp noise. We videotaped the event at 30, 60, 90, 120, 150, 180, 210 and 240 meters away, hoping to illustrate the difference in the speed of light (seeing the event) and the speed of sound (hearing the event).

We received much more from the exercise, and we “created content.” Why did the distance have to become quite large before we noticed the difference in the speed of sound? This activity was an effective hypothesis generator. A second movie was made, this time using two-way radios at the student location and the camera location. This movie can be used to find the time between receiving the sound through the radio and through the air. Knowing this and the distance, the speed of  sound can be found. However, much more was investigated than just the speed of sound.

Making the digital movie faciliated investigation of a science topic using the students’ social context. This form of participatory media requires new ways of thinking about schools and schooling. The tools are emerging. Now we need to consider effective teaching strategies for their use.

Bull is co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Yoder is a graduate fellow in the Center for Technology and Teacher Education. Park is a professor of science education at North Carolina State University.



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