Videos have already become an important part of modern education, whether through well-known education platforms like Khan Academy or content created by teachers for their students' use. Video tutorials can help students with questions on homework or test preparation. However, students are finding the value in creating tutorial videos themselves for other students.
During her sophomore year, Shilpa Yarlagadda was falling behind in her high school courses and began looking up video tutorials online to help catch up. But she soon realized she learned difficult material better from her friends than from any of the content she could find online. She was struggling with AP Chemistry that year, but when a concept finally clicked, she would make a video about it to help her friends taking lower level chemistry classes.
"What really makes a video tutorial powerful is capturing the essence of the student’s voice from someone who initially didn't understand the material," Yarlagadda told Alan November in a podcast last year. Shilpa co-founded, with Roya Huang, Club Academia, a site hosting tutorial videos created by high school students and vetted for accuracy by teachers.
"When students explain it and they have a way to make it extremely relevant to your life and show you how this actually relates to you specifically, that can make the material really exciting,” Yarlagadda said. Huang has become famous in some education circles for a video she made explaining the physics concept of position by telling a story about a girl who wanted to sit close to a boy in the movie theater, but not too close in case her interest was too obvious.
“It's about making the material exciting for someone else,” Yarlagadda said. “When you’re able to do that for someone else really properly, it’s so rewarding.” The most important element to make a video exciting and relevant is the student presenter’s passion for the subject. When a student loves the ideas she’s teaching, it’s infectious and often helps her come up with creative ways to relate the material to the lives of peers.
The best student teachers are the ones who've struggled to understand and have a fresh memory of that "aha moment" when they got it, according to Yarlagadda. Those students can often walk another student through the process in a more visceral way.
"We're not looking for the brightest kid in the class," she said. "We're looking for the most passionate kids. Someone who had difficulty learning, but was really persistent in the learning process and was eventually able to understand it.”
Students’ ability to make powerful resources for one another often surprises adults, Yarlagadda said, but it’s also emblematic of a bigger problem in education. “I really believe that the best people to solve problems are the people who face them,” she said. “In the field of education, those people are students, and I think it’s unfortunate that we’re often left out of the conversation.”
Yarlagadda graduated from Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California, last year and is taking a gap year to explore opportunities to expand Club Academia. She says students at Gunn are good at explaining materials within their particular context, but that it might not fit another school somewhere else in the country. She wants Club Academia to grow into an international chapter-based organization, where kids make videos for other kids experiencing life in the same way. She’s already got some takers in Australia and Columbia - she’s just working out some kinks in the website code to make it open source. She wants people to be able to upload and approve videos for their local chapter.
NOT JUST FOR HIGH SCHOOL KIDS
A California middle school teacher found out first hand just how hard students are willing to work when they get to pick the topic, show creative license and publish it online. Eric Marcos has been publishing student-created tutorials on his site Mathtrain since 2007, some of which have garnered thousands of views. The project started informally, just kids messing around after school. That independence and creative license is part of what makes the videos powerful, Marcos said.
“The kids are definitely aware now that people are watching from all over the world, but they don’t get too psyched out about that,” Marcos said. “They still won’t let the video go if it’s not the best it can be.” A colleague of Marcos saw how much kids liked making tutorials and assigned videos for extra credit. One girl came in and made a video using the tablets in Marcos’ class. She was getting ready to turn it in when Marcos told her he’d put the video up on Mathtrain. She immediately ran back in and said he couldn’t post it until she'd fixed some little things.
“When it was for homework, she was happy to just get it done,” Marcos said. But she wasn’t content to let something go up on the website, where everyone could see it, if it wasn’t her best work.
A student making a video has to know the material well and offer it up with a narrative structure, a “math story.” Marcos has found that demonstrating learning in this way is a better fit for learners who might not have done well in a traditional setting. Marcos was asked to tutor a student who was failing algebra. She asked to make a video and it soon became apparent she knew way more than anyone thought she did about math.
“You would never think that person was not doing well in math class because she knows what she’s doing,” Marcos said. The student’s success with video making gave her confidence and soon her performance improved on more traditional tasks as well.
Student-made videos may be more important than ever now, as teachers, parents and students alike adjust to new Common Core State Standards. The standards emphasize situational math, solving problems collaboratively and talking through the underlying concepts of each answer. Many parents find the new approach bewildering because it doesn’t look like the “plug and chug” formulaic math they were taught. Marcos sees a glaring need for quality online resources to support the whole community in this transition.
“We have people who are dying for information and are looking for resources, whether it’s kids or families,” Marcos said. “I’m going to encourage the students to make videos that follow along with the Common Core themes.” He’s interested to see how the new instructional style that goes along with new curriculum will translate into the students videos. Will they use more stories to relay math concepts? He suspects they might, but he’s not going to tell them what to do because that would destroy what makes Mathtrain unique -- students creating math content because they think it's fun.