The spelling mistake: Scene one, take one

December 8, 2006

Westminster lecturer Russell Stannard is videoing himself marking essays so that students get the most out of feedback. He reports on small-screen success

Imagine you videoed yourself every time you marked a student's work. Imagine you could open up a student's essay on your computer screen, press a button and from that moment on everything you said and any corrections you made on the work were all recorded on video. If you highlighted something, underlined a spelling mistake or talked about the organisation of the essay, it would all be recorded. Then you simply clicked a button and e-mailed the video to the student. They could then play it back, and listen and watch as you commented on their essay. You could get them to watch the video and then redraft their essay. Moreover, it wouldn't require any fancy software, just standard screen recorder software that works at a click of the mouse.

This is already happening at Westminster University. Students receive live video recordings of me correcting their essays. Early results are encouraging. Students are taking much more interest in the feedback they receive. The amount of information that can be provided by the teacher is much greater, and students feel it is the nearest thing to a one-to-one feedback session. With recent discussions on improving feedback in higher education, this may be just the thing universities are looking for. It is powerful yet incredibly simple to use and provides documented proof of feedback.

So how does the technology work? The student e-mails an essay in text format to the tutor. The tutor opens the file and activates the software.

Everything that the tutor then does on screen is recorded as a video: every mouse move, underlining and correction. If the tutor has a microphone plugged in, any comments they make are also recorded. Once the feedback has been completed, the video is compressed into a format that students can view on their computer and is sent back to them.

It doesn't matter what text programme the student uses because the software simply records the screen.

Research is at an early stage, but is causing widespread interest. Most lecturers add notes in the margins of students' essays, normally fewer than ten words. However, because tutors can talk as they correct the work, much more detailed and complete feedback can be given.

In Westminster's research, based around an "English for academic purposes"

course, the students are told where the problem is and how it might have come about, but are left to correct the mistake themselves. This forces them to watch the videos and then redraft their essays. Whereas the total number of comments on a "normal" feedback system might amount to a quarter of a page, if the comments from the videos were written down they would take up more than a whole page of writing. For example, traditional correction of grammar in an essay might include a few notes about the type of mistake that has been made, whereas with the video the teacher can explain where the mistake might have come from.

The power of the software lies in its simplicity. There is a small amount of extra time involved because the videos have to be compressed before being sent to the student, but apart from this it really is a "live"

recording of your feedback session. And because the software simply records the screen, any tools you use when correcting on screen will come out on video. So, for example, if you use a "highlighter" facility to point out a mistake or underline a particular word, it all shows up in the video. This makes feedback both oral and visual, and therefore suitable for different learning styles.

Tests so far have shown there is a strong fit between the technology and language teaching as the video feedback can include information about syntax, grammar, spelling and choice of vocabulary. However, other ideas for using the technology have also emerged. On an information and communications technology course, I marked essays on the topic of using "interactive whiteboards" in the normal way. Then I opened up a text file, turned on the screen recorder and began to produce a "general feedback video" where I talked through common mistakes, organisation of essays, good points that were made by some of the students and so on. Afterwards, I produced an essay plan explaining how I would have organised the answer.

The video was compressed and sent to all the students.

These general class feedback videos are particularly useful as they are quick to make and can cover a lot of material. And on an English course I realised there were several students making a particular grammatical mistake. I produced a feedback video that was more like a grammar lesson, providing information about the point, writing up examples and then sending the recording to all the students. Of course these ideas are not limited to higher education. They could be used in any course at any level.

Many teachers and lecturers are also citing the possibilities for distance learning. Michael Thomas, an associate professor of English as a foreign language in Japan, who has been exploring the feedback videos with his own university students, believes the idea could be invaluable for distance-learning courses.

"Many distance-learning courses would really benefit from this idea as they often lack personal contact with the tutors," he says. "It could add a whole new dimension to student-teacher feedback, as the technology can be used with a minimum of knowledge by students and teachers alike."

The first step in setting up the videos involved identifying the technology that could be used. There are a number of screen- recorder software packages. Screen recorder by Matchware is very easy to use (a click of a button to start recording your screen) and can be effective. Camtasia and Captivate allow greater editing facilities and compression options.

I chose Camtasia because the latest version allows you to include a small video of yourself in the corner of the screen so that the students not only see your computer screen and hear your voice, but can see you as you mark their work.

The second step was to look at the kind of feedback provided. Is it better to provide direct correction of the mistakes within the videos or simply to highlight mistakes, but get students to correct the work themselves? The research findings were contradictory but it was decided that the most effective way of getting students to use the videos was not to correct the mistakes but rather to point out where they were, suggest what might be the cause of them, and leave it up to students to do the corrections in the redraft. This forces students to work with the videos and extract the information provided in them.

The software does not only have to be used for feedback. Screen recorder software can be used to teach in all sorts of areas. For example, you can open up a software package such as Adobe Flash, turn on the screen recorder software and demonstrate ways of using Flash, talking and commenting as you do so. Such video presentations have proved to be very popular with students. Will Whitlock from Westminster's Educational Initiative Centre, which funds the project, says the centre is looking at more projects in this area and that the feedback videos have created "a lot of interest".

The next step is to do some comparative studies. Are the videos effective learning tools? Do they result in improved drafts against traditional methods and what do students feel about them?

Does it make the whole process of feedback more interesting? We should have some answers early next year.

Russell Stannard is a principal lecturer at Westminster University's department of computer science. An example of feedback on grammar he has produced can be viewed online, although not at full screen size, at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZ1y4t6ggQs

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