Personalized Video Learning

Dan Meyer just put out a nice blog post pushing back against some promotion of “Personalized Learning.” You can find the article here:

He’s not wrong- the applications the original article talks about are basic and only interesting if you compare them to pretty terrible teaching techniques. I’m not here to pile on about it, because there’s no need and Dan nicely covers the bases. I’m here because his article triggered an idea, and I needed a place to work that out.

In his response, Dan brings up the oft-touted benefit of video lectures: that students can rewind and review parts of the lectures to “further” their understanding, or to “clarify” difficult concepts. He also (rightfully) points out that that’s not how this really works- you don’t ask someone to repeat exactly what they said again when you miss something the first time. You ask for the variation- the alternative take. Another angle on the whole thing, that might better clarify that difficult concept.

But what if we could?

I’m not sure of the specifics of implementing something like this, but it seems like it might work like this:

  1. An instructor does a short video about a difficult concept. For that video, we follow current best practices and keep the video sub-six minutes, we have good graphics, speedy and natural delivery, and all that goodness.
  2. The same instructor records several other takes- and that’s not variations on the first video, but alternate methods. Maybe a metaphor. A real-world example. An animated version. Whatever.
  3. The student is eventually served that first video, and at the end of viewing, is presented with something like a “Got it?” button. If yes, move on to the next thing. If no, student gets served one of the alternate videos on the subject. Repeat until the answer is yes.
  4. Over time, analytics show which video versions are most useful (as they’re likely the last version watched…), and we can start feeding that data back into the creation of video segments (so, for example, if the animated graphic version seems to do best, that becomes the primary video in the future).
  5. Indeed, most LMS systems would allow those video analytics to be collected per-student, and you could eventually begin to serve each student individually the version of the video most (statistically) likely to suit them. You’d want to keep that model somewhat fluid, as students will find different variations work best/better on different subjects.

I’ve not seen this done, but in retrospect it seems pretty obvious. If you’ve seen this work somewhere, could you send me a link? I’d like in on that action.


Since I went to EdCamp Boston a bit ago, I’ve found myself thinking about the session Dan Callahan led about the Chaordic Path. It was a great session, and the Chaordic Path idea slipped nicely into my existing structure of understanding of learning spaces.

My issue (or, rather less judgmentally, my thought…) is more centered around the graphic commonly associated with that idea.


There are a bunch of topics that I’ve spent time dealing with in classrooms over the years (mostly in regards to themes in literature) that students have struggled with, and many of those themes seem to have the same thing in common: they occupy a spectrum. Or, if you’d rather, a continuum. Things like “Good vs Evil” or “Light vs Dark” or “Male vs Female” come up over and over, and while student at first gravitate towards them, as the inherent complexity becomes more clear, they find themselves struggling with the ideas. What they want initially is a nice binary choice: things are either good or evil (but not both). It’s ok if a character switches from good to evil, but students want to treat that like a switch- one moment they’re good, the next and they’re evil.

But that’s not human reality- people (fictional or otherwise) are rarely wholly good or wholly evil. More often they’re complicated mixes of the two that vary both based on the time but also based on your perspective as an observer. And so: we find ourselves trying to explain continuums. They are, of course, familiar with a number line, but they are not used to applying that sort of model to other aspects of human life. Gender. Sexuality. Order and Chaos. Good and Evil. Light and Dark.

We want to represent the complexities of life as simply as we can- that’s part of the efficient transmission of information. But we must learn to be careful in classrooms to not adopt such simplified models that we loose the inherent meaning imparted by the continuum. Instead of allowing binary choices to abound, it’s time to start showing students that most of what they think of as binary simply isn’t, and to treat is as such is reductive. It is a cheat- to reduce something complex to an overly simple model allows flawed thinking and cognitive fallacy.

It’s ok for things to be complicated. It’s ok for there not to be easy answers to seemingly simple questions. And it’s ok for our answers to change based on when/where/how/who is doing the asking (and for the questioner’s perspective of our answers to shift, too).

Asking a student if a character is good or bad is a fine start, but by broaching the idea of there being a full spectrum of good vs bad (and that a given character’s position on that spectrum might not be a simple thing to answer) allows students safe ways to begin to understand that complexity.

Dan’s presentation of the Chaordic Path was very good (clearly, as I’m still thinking of it several days later…), but it’s the graphic I want to address. The interlocked rings are a good start (and, for the purposes of the session, likely the right choice). But I find myself thinking that a line- a simple line representing the spectrum of spaces between Camos and Stifling Order does a good job of illustrating both that these gradations exist, but also that an environment can easily slip between these areas over the course of a lesson or day. In my mind, it’s a spectrum with “sweet spots” on it where especially useful conditions seem to exist.

SatChat reflections.

I ended up on twitter on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago (which is a much less common occurrence than it once was…), and found myself tweeting on the #satchat hashtag for a few minutes. A couple of things I noticed about that:

  1. I was really happy to see #satchat up and running still- it was one of my favorites when I was doing that sort of thing a lot, and it made me happy those good people are still fighting the fight.
  2. I was less happy that some of the topics were still up for debate. This particular week was about the value (or not) of homework, and I was kinda bummed out. That is, for me anyway, a settled topic. The research is clear. I’m not sure why we’re still having that conversation.
  3. I can still say things that seem to resonate with people. I’ve been out of the K12 world for couple of years now, and I had started to worry if my fire was still burning (internally, of course) on some of those issues. It is.

I can’t commit to doing #satchat with any degree of consistency- I’ve got my own (small) children to manage, and Saturday morning can be a… fraught… time. Regardless: it was good to poke my head back in and see that some of my ideas, opinions, and views still seem to fit into the K12 conversation.

Video Essays

Ah, yes. A subject I’ve been going on about (if you’ve been reading my newsletter). I can’t help it, I suppose- video essays are clearly, I think, the next thing in education. They’re too versatile, too compelling, too multi-modal to be ignored. And, if we’re talking about any modern version of literacy, they’re necessary.

As a result of all this, I’ve been watching a ton of these things. There are lots of them out there, on a wide variety of subject and of a (predictably) wide variety of quality. There doesn’t seem to be any formalized consensus on the form itself (thus far), but there do seem to be a number of “conventions” that have been reached.

  1. Length seems to be in the 5-12 minute range. There have been some longer ones (Everything is a Remix, for example), but those tend to be divided into “chapters.”
  2. Most of the popular videos seem to be about following tropes in culture through multiple media- books, music, film, art, etc…
  3. Voice over is a thing. It’s what provides the bulk of the linking (from example to example), but the best ones let the examples speak, too.
  4. Tight tight tight. Not a wasted second, not an extra anything. Take your time with the examples, fine- but don’t pad it out with anything that’s not tightly related & integrated.
  5. Quality- examples you use have to be high quality- high def video, clear & high res pictures, readable text, clean audio. Your audience will be intolerant of anything else.
  6. Citations. As a favorite teacher of mine once said: Give credit where it is due (thanks, Mrs. Schwartz!). It really is that simple: anything you use that you, yourself, haven’t made? Cite it.
  7. Soundtrack isn’t an afterthought.
  8. Animation breathes life into static material. Paintings, text, and pictures all don’t move on their own, so you need to add that movement. Animated highlighting to text. Ken Burns movements on the images. Animated arrows or circles on static material. Direct your viewers’ attention.

Structurally, these really aren’t that different than a more “traditional” essay- introductions, conclusions, evidence, transitions- all those elements of construction remain conventions here.

I’m working on one of these, myself- it’s a super-duper busy time for me (both at work and at home), and so the progress is… slow. Still: I just shot some footage for a tiny segment yesterday, so I’m not making zero progress. I’d not hold my breath, were I you, however.

Blowing up on twitter.

Last night, just before getting off the train on the evening commute, I sent out a tweet. It was mildly political and mentioned William Gibson in it- who was the author of the quote I was mentioning. He, in turn, re-tweeted my tweet, and thus began a night of my phone exploding with twitter notifications.

By the morning that’d mostly settled down. Gibson has ~178K followers on twitter, and in the twelve (or so) hours since I sent the original message, that tweet got 92 retweets and 126 favorites. In my world, that’s a lot. When I checked the twitter stats on it, I found that it was seen by just over 20,000 people and “engaged with” by just over 3,000 people. That’s way above any sort of average engagement I get.

So I was curious as how this new-to-me attention would manifest in the rest of my online presence. Would I get subscriptions to my newsletter? Follows on twitter? Would my (this) website see a spike in traffic?


Of the 20,000 people who saw the tweet, two followed me. 23 clicked my bio link in twitter (which has this webpage link in it), and of those, 8 actually got here. Zero subscriptions to my newsletter.

So here’s what I’ve learned: twitter is a land unto itself. Things that happen there are largely isolated there- so if you want people to read something, it best be in the tweet. If you provide a link to something- it’s not getting clicked. Your profile isn’t going to be raised anywhere else. Indeed, any single spike on twitter isn’t even going to do much for you on twitter. The engagement you see there is only there, and it’s isolated from the rest of your online presence.

What do I do with this information? I change the way I tweet a bit. It’s less about links to things now- at least, no links without some of the content attached. I’ll stop worrying about trying to use twitter as a device to drive traffic anywhere else- no matter how easy I think I’ve made that. I’ll let twitter just be twitter.


From the back cover of Paul Cronin’s book about Werner Herzog, titled Werner Herzog – A Guide for the Perplexed (found via kottke) The rules:

1. Always take the initiative.
2. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need.
3. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.
4. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.
5. Learn to live with your mistakes.
6. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern.
7. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it.
8. There is never an excuse not to finish a film.
9. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.
10. Thwart institutional cowardice.
11. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
12. Take your fate into your own hands.
13. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape.
14. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory.
15. Walk straight ahead, never detour.
16. Manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver.
17. Don’t be fearful of rejection.
18. Develop your own voice.
19. Day one is the point of no return.
20. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class.
21. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema.
22. Guerrilla tactics are best.
23. Take revenge if need be.
24. Get used to the bear behind you.



So you want to be a teacher.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog has quipped that to be successful in his craft, one should not go to film school. Instead, he recommends some of the following skills:

  • Lock picking
  • Document forging
  • Multiple languages
  • Martial Arts

His argument hinges on a simple truth: in the act of making a film, these skills trump the theoretical offerings of a formal art school. And while thinking of this, it seemed clear that there were things you should know and study that they weren’t teaching in education school.

To that end, I’ve put together a list of the skills and areas of study that I feel are crucial to being a good teacher- but that aren’t taught in any typical education program.


And not some simple statistics-for-education. A real, honest to god statistics course. Knowing how to interpret data is crucial- both so you can see the actual meaning of what you’ve gathered, but also so you can see when someone’s trying to pull the wool over your eyes.


If you think teaching isn’t an act of performance art- stop. Withdraw from your program and give up. You are not presenting yourself as you teach- you are presenting a created version of yourself that best allows you to teach. That’s acting- and you’re going to be doing it six hours a day, five days a week, 180 days a year. If you’re uncomfortable with that fact, this job isn’t for you. Walk away.


Students deserve materials that are well designed- and that’s not just a matter of them “looking better” mind you- good design addresses having the form help the function. I know that Comic Sans is listed as a font on your machine but trust me- it’s not. Not only is it hideous and an abomination- it’s not very readable. It is not in the best interests of your students no matter how “nice” you think it looks. A decent design course can help give you the sensibilities to make better choices.

Conflict resolution training

I took a 32 hour course in restraint training- physical restraints, that is. In my time in conventional classrooms, I never once had cause to put hands on a student. That’s a good thing. What was most interesting about the course was that it spent MORE time on de-escalation techniques than on the actual physical holds. In fact, the mentality was that if it comes to a physical interaction, you’ve already lost. Everything is about slowing things down and calming people. That part of the training I used nearly every day- with students and staff.

Film making

Digital delivery is a given today- you need to be adept, comfortable, and effective at making short films. There isn’t any more “that’s not my job” or “it’s too hard” or whatever. Consumer grade computers capable of digital video editing have been around since at lest 1999- learn how to shoot and edit video. It’s a thing now.

Project management

Dealing with projects spread across some 120 students in various states is as clear an example of project management as I can think of. Learn some tools and techniques to be able to deal with that sort of volume of creation.

I can’t even tell you how many times lock picking was useful in my teaching career- and having some solid A/V experience let me do a lot of things I wouldn’t have been able to any other way. Or how being able to circumvent a firewall/filter was crucial to teaching a lesson. But the above list, I think, represents more along the lines of how we should be thinking about educating teachers. Lateral thinking should be encouraged, rather than the step-by-step adherence to the latest regulations.

I’m not sure I could recommend going into the field to anyone right now- the deck seems so heavily stacked against the ability of good teachers to do what they do best… It’s too big a subject to tackle in this post, I know. There seems to be so much emphasis on “making sure” that “teachers are doing their jobs” (as dictated by a group of distinctly non-educators, mind you…) that there’s no room for good teachers to do their thing.

Still. If you’re in the process of entering the field, and you’re wondering what elective courses to round your program out with- there’s my pick.

What we know vs What we do

This has been brewing for a while. Ask anyone who works with me (as I’ve likely ranted at them recently), and I’m not the first person to have the thought. Still.

The difference between what we know and what we do troubles me. Examples?

1. We know that the formalized teaching of grammar doesn’t actually lead to better writing from students. We’ve known this (using science!) since the 60’s. We still teach formalized grammar to “improve writing.”

2. We know sitting is bad for us. We continue to fill classrooms with chairs (and demand students stay in them).

3. We know physically assaulting a child is not an effective method of discipline. We pass bills (in 20 states!) that allow it anyway.

And sadly, there are many more. So many more, I’m afraid, that I can’t even begin to enumerate them here. And for me, it was the realization of how different our schools would look if we took into account the things we know.

Sources of inspiration.

Cool Tools Book
Cool Tools

Sometimes people wonder where I get ideas from. It’s always a difficult question on answer, because the sources are so varied and diverse, but since I just received something I’ve been waiting for, I thought I’d share:

Kevin Kelly, formerly of the Whole Earth Catalog, formerly of Wired Magazine, has just put out a new book: Cool Tools A Catalog of Possibilities. It is, in every way, the spiritual successor to the Whole Earth catalog. Just looking through it inspires idea. It’s exactly the sort of place I go when I need broad-band inspiration.