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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Upload University: Teachers Get Online

Educators share ideas with a new Web site modeled on YouTube.
By Alexandra R. Moses

For most teachers, the nuances of what goes on inside their colleagues' classrooms are a mystery. Jason Smith wants to peek behind those doors with a high-tech tool -- streaming videos over the Internet.

Smith, superintendent of the Melissa Independent School District, in Melissa, Texas, launched the video-sharing Web site TeacherTube in March of 2007. In an era when student improvement is a federal mandate, Smith says, many teachers want to change but lack a forum to find ideas and share theirs with others.

"We just don't share even with our colleagues across the hall," Smith says. "We're being held accountable for reaching every child, and that means we have to understand that we can't continue to teach children the way we have in the past."

TeacherTube has been an instant hit -- since March 6, Smith says, more than 13.6 million visitors have been on the site. More than 1,300 videos have been posted so far.

With TeacherTube, Smith aims to fill a gap in teacher professional development, giving educators access to teaching methods, instructional videos, and sample lessons from around the world. A number of the professional-development videos posted to the site encourage educators to embrace the technology their students use every day, including the use of blogs, wikis, and online video.

The videos on TeacherTube vary widely in presentation. Some are brief, concisely emphasizing why teachers should consider using a particular tool. Others feel like amateur home movies, lacking good lighting and sound quality and steady camera work. But many offer techniques for engaging students in specific subjects, such as math and science, complete with downloadable support materials.

In a random selection of videos, Mrs. Burk -- "the rapping math teacher" -- models a lesson for students on perimeter and area, Dr. Altman demonstrates magnetic fields, a Utah school district presents a PowerPoint show on incorporating technology in the classroom, and a group of teachers give a detailed lesson on how to run a literature circle.

In Burk's video, she dances and raps to computer-generated beats in front of a Matrix-like background: "Perimeter is the fence that goes around / Area is the grass that's inside the playground / To get the perimeter, you add all the sides / To get the area you have to multiply / One length times one width is all you have to do / To get the area, and now you're through." It makes you laugh -- and cringe a little -- but the rap gets stuck in your head.

A Forum That Works

The video forum works for teachers, thanks to technology that makes creating and uploading videos easy and cheap. A number of teachers already make their own videos for classroom lessons and conferences and post to sites such as YouTube and Google Video. But YouTube has no category for education, and because it includes some provocative content, many schools block it; meanwhile, Google's education-video library is light on practical content.

Teacher and education blogger Vicki A. Davis says using Internet video to augment lessons is just plain cool to kids. "They're used to interacting with their world in this way," adds Davis, who teaches at the private college-preparatory Westwood Schools, in Camilla, Georgia. "The teacher who lectures all day is losing touch."

Davis, who runs the Cool Cat Teacher Blog, has long been posting video to YouTube. Because she can see every computer screen in her classroom, she leaves the site unblocked for her students, but she says she gets more hits on a video posted to TeacherTube because it's a safe site for schools.

Smith adds that the creation and immense popularity of YouTube helped establish the standard for how video sharing works on the Web, and the cost to run such a site, including bandwidth and storage space for videos, has dropped significantly since it appeared. To launch TeacherTube, Smith, his wife, and his brother bought a software program and customized it for their needs. Three months later, the site was up.

It's been a project in flux, because Smith didn't want to create a solid business plan until he got feedback from users -- and there's been plenty of that. Already, the site creators have made changes, allowing not only video downloads and uploads but also posting of teacher-support materials such as lesson plans and lyrics to accompany videos. They're also working on adding audio files.

At the National Educational Computing Conference, in June, Smith will unveil a new product: TeacherTube Onsite, on which a school system can base a customized version of the site; the district would control content, and students and teachers could easily access it. Smith says he's already testing the site and hopes to make it available in September, with a likely charge of about $10 per student.

TeacherTube users say the site's usefulness will grow as more teachers log on. Thomas Altman, a science teacher at Oswego High School, in Oswego, New York, has already posted eleven videos to TeacherTube. He started making video lessons as a way to aid his Advanced Placement physics students after school, and he now is creating complete lessons that anyone taking or teaching physical science classes can use.

"Seeing my lesson done on YouTube or TeacherTube will allow the teacher to see it modeled in my style, but also get the content information," Altman says. "And the student will get a 'teacher' doing a lesson."

Smith says some of the videos, including the professional-development video from Utah on technology, cause “me to bend the way I think as an educator." The video Pay Attention, for example, highlights the need for teachers to view technology such as iPods and cell phones not as distractions but as part of the way today's students are different. Smith says this and other videos on the site have shown him that "I, as an educator, have a responsibility to meet my kids where they are. And they are in a digital world."

Reaching individual students for specific needs, as well as just learning something new, is why Smith hopes teachers will come to TeacherTube. Some may seek an exciting lesson to spice up a boring topic; others might want to find people who teach what they teach, or have students with the same particular challenge.

"What we teach isn't negotiable, but the negotiable is how we go about reaching every child and understanding that every child is a different level than the next," he says. "We need to allow teachers to have better information so they can make decisions on how they can grow."

Davis agrees, saying, "One well-made video works better than hours of staff development."

Alexandra R. Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.

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