Monday, June 1, 2015

Almost like being there?

Video is seductive technology. It’s used as click bait on social media, to advertise on the sides of buildings in Times Square, and even to help pass the time in the back seat of a New York City taxi. In education, video has tremendous potential to instruct, to inspire, to raise awareness, and more. It is making its way into teacher education as a tool for analyzing teaching. Despite its potential, I am concerned about some trends I am noticing, and that I believe deserve careful scrutiny.

For example, at Relay, the website boasts that its instructors are not “sitting in ivory towers” but coaching and mentoring students who are learning to become teachers. “When they’re not right there in the classroom, they’re side by side with our students, watching and analyzing video of them…pausing, rewinding and replaying the video to give pinpoint feedback.” They even call these videos “game film” as in show that you’ve got game in the classroom. Video is also used to instruct, and Relay’s site explains “our students can watch and rewatch course modules as they complete our program.” One of the students featured in a Relay video  even claims, “Film doesn’t lie.”

One of my concerns lies in the false sense of objectivity that is ascribed to videos of classroom life. Like it or not, the camera is a presence. You can’t be unaware of it, and it comes with its own interpretive lens even sitting on a tripod in the corner of the room. It is not reality, it is a representation of reality. What’s more, classroom events are often incredibly complex, and require deep contextual knowledge to fully understand and even interpret. I know from my own research in classrooms that when revisiting classroom events with participants using video there is a lot of unpacking to do about the teacher’s intentions and beliefs, the students’ understanding, and the shifts and gaps between what is captured in film and what is remembered by the people afterwards.

Another concern is that the temptation in observing teaching to satisfy a checklist of items you are looking for is exacerbated with video. We have been there, done that, and the behavioral checklist doesn’t work. It’s a bit like getting on a sightseeing bus, driving around a city, and saying you saw this and that. You caught a glimpse, grabbed a bad photo or two, but what did you really see? Not much. Using video to evaluate teaching is also problematic because the likelihood is that only a short clip will be analyzed, a tiny sliver of what classroom life is really like, and the evaluator will probably only watch once. It’s as if instead of going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, lingering over favorite paintings and talking with a friend about what you notice, like, appreciate, wonder about, and so on, and reading the contextual information provided by the curator, you watch a quick slideshow online where each image lasts for 15 seconds and you get the name of the artist and the title of the work on the bottom of the screen. It’s not likely that you will have a memorable and long-lasting experience.

What much of the video use in teacher education is intending to replace is the bothersome and expensive problem of actually being in the classroom. It is an acknowledged problem that full time faculty don’t generally supervise student teachers, and that the work is more often than not relegated to adjuncts and in large universities, to doctoral students. Principals are also hard pressed to find enough time to evaluate all the teachers in their schools, and rely on help from assistant principals and instructional coaches. Now that companies like EdThena are developing software to make it easy and intuitive to provide feedback on teachers’ videos, we are likely to see more and more remote evaluation. No one will remember anymore the value of being in the room, because teaching won’t be seen as relational work, but as a series of techniques to be micro-managed by data analysis and video software.

How is this creeping up on us? In preservice education, we are seeing how Pearson’s scoring of edTPA portfolios is micromanaged by very specific rubrics looking for particular instructional moves in video clips totaling approximately 15 minutes. This leads to some very problematic oversimplification as in this Powerpoint slide widely used to explain the rubric progression of edTPA scoring from one to five:

Why, for example, is a preservice teacher rewarded for a focus on individuals or flexible groups rather than on the whole class? This is a false dichotomy. There are plenty of classroom moments that call for the teacher to focus on the whole class. The danger of delineating “best practices” in this sense is then certain approaches and teaching moves become de-facto no-nos. The truth is there are times when it is appropriate to be letting students explore and do inquiry, and others when students require explicit step-by-step instructions from the teacher. In the new teacher education accreditation standards from CAEP we see that clinical supervision is using “technology-based applications” and “technology-enhanced learning opportunities” that are likely stand-ins for video analysis of teaching. The call for external evaluators in schools as in Governor Cuomo’s budget will likely be done by video (see p. 18 here that says observations may be live or recorded video) and will claim to have teacher and union support. For example, Public Agenda’s initiative Everyone at the Table (with funding from the Gates Foundation) seeks to involve teachers in evaluation reform. Teachers will be persuaded to buy-in to the idea of external evaluation by video because there is some truth to the problem that principals and peers are biased and can have favorites, and video evaluation is seen as more objective. But precisely because it offers less context, and comes with more narrow parameters (that checklist rears its ugly head again), it is more problematic.  

 Although a recent piece by NPR on professions that are likely to be automated in the coming decades  said college professors only had a 3.2% chance of that happening, there is an increasing possibility that a bleak future for unemployed former teacher educators will entail scraping together a measly income from scoring edTPA portfolios, doing supervision and teacher evaluation by video analysis, and putting together data analysis reports from software made by EdThena or other similar companies.