August 14th, 2015

Showtime in the Classroom: Seven Ways Streaming Video Can Enhance Teaching


Professor at lectern

Many faculty seek to make creative use of films in their teaching, whether in traditional class screenings or through flipped classrooms. However, there are many obstacles to teaching with videos: the costs and constraints of DVD as a technology; limited DVD collections at some libraries; time involved in creating videos for one’s own classes; the popularized, questionable nature of many videos found on YouTube; the lack of institutional subscriptions to mainstream streaming services; and copyright concerns. Fortunately, in recent years, most campus libraries have subscribed to copyright-licensed and academically oriented streaming video collections such as Kanopy, NBC Learn, Films on Demand, PBS Video Collection, and Swank’s Digital Campus. These “Netflix” of academia offer fantastic functionalities and curated content designed with pedagogy in mind.

Here are seven specific ways that library streaming services can enliven traditional teaching with videos, support film projects that you might already be assigning, and make new types of learning experiences possible for your students.

1. Link to customized segments while teaching. We have all had the frustrating experience of trying to show specific film segments to a class by fast-forwarding and rewinding back and forth through a whole DVD to find the segments. Today, most library streaming databases offer “create a clip” or “custom segment” features that allow us to select our own segments from a video, embed links to those segments on presentation slides, and jump directly to those segments while teaching. You can even mix and match clips from several different videos about the same controversial topic, like the death penalty, in order to expose students to multiple perspectives and spark debates.

2. Create video annotation assignments. Streaming video databases can be accessed in classrooms or by individual students working at home, opening up the possibility for more student-driven assignments. For example, you can ask students to use the “create a clip” feature to compile lists of clips from the video databases, and annotate those clips on pages in their course software. Such an active learning approach can foster more critical thinking than passive viewing of preselected videos. In “Teaching and Learning with Video Annotations,” Bossewitch and Preston (2011) point out that “the mere availability of video alone is not sufficient to improve educational outcomes; pedagogical approaches to video that encourage close reading through annotation … may help do so.”

3. Design virtual fieldwork experiences. Many faculty are experimenting with virtual fieldwork experiences that show students a real-world scenario through a film and require students to interpret those situations as interns would out in the field. Several new academic streaming databases offer ready-made content for this type of assignment. Counseling and Therapy in Video from Alexander Street Press (ASP) provides recordings of therapy sessions for psychology students. ASP’s Engineering Case Studies Online presents eyewitness accounts of famous mechanical failures for engineering students. A class can watch examples on a video and learn to assess professional techniques in a structured classroom setting before diving into live observation experiences.

4. Provide transcripts for greater accessibility and thematic exploration. Databases like Films on Demand offer closed captioning as well as running transcripts alongside the films, making the videos more accessible to all students. Students also can search the transcripts for a specific keyword so they can pinpoint relevant parts in a video track, making it more practical than ever for students to research specific themes in films.

5. Assign primary source film analysis. Perhaps you’re considering how to encourage students to use more historic films in papers. Or maybe you’ve thought of asking your students to find old movies, compare them to recent Hollywood movies on the same topic, and trace changes in cultural attitudes about the films’ topics. However, you wonder if your students will be able to find enough classic films in the library’s DVD collections or be forced to fish through an ocean of dubious free clips on the web for credible source material. Many new library-streaming databases, like ASP’s Silent Films Online, offer curated archival collections that can give your students a critical mass of historic materials.

6. Offer media literacy labs. Some faculty assign media-analysis projects that require students to evaluate news for bias, and many libraries have recently subscribed to databases that make ideal labs for these assignments. Check your library’s website for NBC Learn Higher Education.

7. Insert questions and comments into the film. Traditionally, in order to stress key ideas in a video, we had to design worksheets for students to complete while they watched the films or try to shout out comments over the audio. Some academic streaming databases now allow you to integrate your comments seamlessly into the films. In Swank, you can prearrange for your comments to pop up in a sidebar at specific points in a video’s timeline.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Consult with your librarians about their streaming subscriptions, and you’ll discover a suite of tools for innovative instructors like yourself who want to maximize student learning through film. In addition, please consult with a copyright lawyer if you are unsure about a film’s copyright or if you have concerns about copyright when using films.

Bosswitch, J., and M. D. Preston. (2011). Teaching and Learning with Video Annotations. In R. Trebor Scholz (Eds.), Learning through Digital Media: Experiments in Technology and Pedagogy, as part of Mobility Shifts: An International Future of Learning Summit,

Brett Spencer is an assistant professor and a reference librarian at the Thun Library at Penn State Berks.

  • Excellent post, Brett. One tool that I've recently discovered, Panopto, would be perfect for students annotating video or posting video from fieldwork. We're going to pilot this in teacher education program for our internship courses. It's definitely worth a look.

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  • Very nice tips. I'll use in my next session!