How Student Video Presentations Can Build Community in an Online Course

It may sound pretty routine to convert a course to an online format, but doing so presents many unexpected challenges and can even challenge a professor’s assumptions about the nature of academic coursework.

Giving a timed test, for instance, is something that’s almost trivial in a face-to-face course but approaches impossibility in an asynchronous online course. How do you give a timed test when you don’t have fixed meeting times? (There are ways to do this, but they are almost all creepy.) You, the professor, simply have to rethink everything.

This summer I got to experience this axiom-bending experience firsthand when I taught my department’s first fully online course — a version of our Calculus 1 course. I had taught this class dozens of times in the past but never online. Our calculus course has many design aspects that make it readily adaptable to an online environment, such as a free online textbook written by our faculty, a YouTube playlist to go with the book, and an online homework system.

But other elements of the course seemed not to have any analogues in an online setting. In particular, one feature of the face-to-face version of the course is student presentations of their work — typically work done in groups during class and then presented at the board for a whole-class discussion. This is an aspect of the course that I’ve always felt was particularly valuable for all the students, whether they are presenting or listening. But how could that possibly work online, when we don’t even meet?

Enter the video presentation.

There was no way we could simply replicate in the online course the presentations that happen in the face-to-face version of the course. But we could use the online setting to do certain things that are uniquely suited to the online environment. So instead of having students present their solutions to problems in class, students presented their solutions to online homework questions by filming themselves and then posting the videos to YouTube.

Here’s how this worked:

  • Online homework was due every Sunday evening. At the start of each week, students selected two problems either from the week just ended or the week before. The choices for problems were posted on our Blackboard site, and they were first-come, first-served.
  • Once the problems were selected, students were given one week to prepare a video in which they gave a complete presentation of the solutions for the problems they chose. They already knew that their answers were correct (presumably they chose problems they had gotten right), so their job was to show the work and give a complete, persuasive argument for their answers at a level suitable for their classmates.
  • The main rule for formatting the video was the student’s face, voice, and handwriting must be present in the video all at the same time, at all times. This was to ensure that the student was truly doing the presenting. (If just the voice and the handwriting were present, I couldn’t be certain that it wasn’t somebody else doing the work and the student doing a voice-over.)
  • Another rule that had to be followed was that the presentations must be under six minutes in length. This is simply good practice for presentations, since the attention span of the average viewer is probably going to be around that length.
  • The student making the video was responsible for uploading it to a YouTube channel made especially for the class and then notifying me that it was ready. Then I would review it and evaluate it on its quality.
  • The presentations were graded on a “Pass/No Pass” basis. A “Pass” mark was given to presentations that had correct final results, clear and persuasive reasoning, no serious issues with video or audio, and in which no major errors — and no more than a few minor ones — were made. If a student received a “No Pass” mark, the student was informed and given three more days to fix the issues.

Each student needed to pass three video presentations to earn an A, two presentations for a B, and one presentation for a C — so completing one presentation was considered part of the evidence for baseline competency in the course.

I wasn’t entirely sure how these presentations would go when I designed the course. I only knew that this was a way to leverage the online setting of the course to do something that I know from face-to-face courses is helpful for students. While I was uncertain at the beginning, in the end these video presentations were one of the biggest successes I’ve had as a teacher.

With the students’ permission, here are some of the presentations that were made:

This student showed a real knack for the dramatic presentation.

I later told her she should make her own channel and make math YouTube videos for a living. She considered it.

Here is another student who used our library’s study rooms effectively:

This next student did this one at home, and if you listen carefully you can hear his infant child in the background. (Having a new kid and working an overnight shift were the reasons he took the course online.)

I promised students at the beginning of the semester that I would provide whatever support and equipment they needed to make these presentations work. But it turns out they didn’t need me. As the first wave of students to make these presentations put their work on YouTube, I had them share their technical processes on the course discussion board — their step-by-step process for using Photo Booth on a Macbook Pro for filming, for example. Other students showed ingenuity in working around access issues. For example, one student didn’t have access to a whiteboard, so she took nine 8.5 x 11″ sheets of paper and taped them to her wall in a 3×3 grid and wrote on them with an ordinary magic marker, and filmed herself using her phone.

The presentations did a number of things for us:

  • They allowed students to make their learning visible to me and to each other, effectively adapting the classroom-presentation model to an appropriate online setting.
  • The presentations got students working at a higher level of Bloom’s Taxonomy by having them create something of value in the course, and I believe that doing these videos helped them connect to the content in new ways.
  • The videos themselves became a repository of worked-out examples, archived on the course Blackboard site and usable any time a student needed to study for a test, work a homework problem, or just remind herself of how a certain process worked. Importantly, students were not looking to me as the sole source of knowledge and examples in the class; they became aware that they could work together as a large group to find knowledge and create examples.
  • Possibly the most important thing is that they added a large dose of humanity to the student experience. Students got to see and hear each other, and suddenly the idea of “classmates,” even “class” itself, was no longer an abstraction. This is one of the hardest parts of teaching and taking online courses — seeing your classmates and students as more than entries in a spreadsheet or avatars on a discussion board.

When you have students creating a repository of materials that other students use to improve their learning experiences in a course, you are well on your way to an authentic learning community in the course. Forming that learning community is one of the biggest challenges to online teaching, and the video presentations were a simple way to help this process along.

Robert Talbert is a mathematician and educator with interests in cryptology, computer science, and STEM education. He is affiliated with the mathematics department at Grand Valley State University.

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