Lessons for higher ed from the ‘Neighborhood of Make-Believe’

Classroom video continues a ‘conversation’ that began decades ago
By: | Issue: September, 2018
August 22, 2018

Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t you be my Neighbor? chronicles the first and most famous attempt to adapt video technology to educate.

In an early scene shot in 1968, Fred Rogers, seated before a piano, explains the basis of his signature academic video-presentation style—the importance of establishing a dialogue to teach.

Due to the limitations of video technology at the time, Rogers had to develop scripts as a two-way conversation with only one voice, pausing consistently to ask the camera, “How does that make you feel?”

If you are old enough to recall responding to questions from a besweatered man wearing slip-on boat shoes, you know it was a dialog; you were a participant in a conversation.

Organic interaction

The explosion in the use of classroom capture systems has created huge libraries of academic videos that follow one side of a conversation.

The billion-dollar lecture capture industry primarily focuses its software, capture stations and cameras on collecting the words of the instructor, following the established investment trail of universities in lecture facilities.

Got a tech story to tell? Present at UBTech 2019.

But change is coming to the neighborhood as waves of iPhone-wielding, Snapchat-savvy students arrive ready for their close-up.

Flipgrid is a company founded by University of Minnesota professor Charlie Miller. The inspiration to develop a student-driven academic video system came when he was suddenly required to travel during the semester.

He needed to preserve the organic interaction of the graduate design class that he was teaching. Text-based forum options couldn’t preserve the high energy and engagement of his class.

Desperate for an alternative, Miller and a partner put together a prototype to securely collect video clips from students in response to questions he could post one at a time. It was an instant hit with the class and the university.

Miller’s students and those that followed were as positive about what they had gained from viewing the video submissions of their peers as they were of the instructor.

Earlier this year, Microsoft acquired Flipgrid, making it free to users of its Office 356 Education suite, and signaling that the age of student-generated video has begun.


Many companies, including Microsoft, Google and Amazon, are adding features for all social media verticals to support the structured collection of individual video, usually around a curated topic similar to a forum.

The academic version of these solutions that are driving the student-video movement differs from generic video platforms by integrating with existing identity management, learning management and assessment systems.

“It’s all about the storytelling,” says Nate Gildart, an internationally recognized History and Individuals and Societies teacher at the Nagoya International School in Japan. “My students can express their ideas in videos made on their devices, responding to assigned topics of inquiry.”   

For example, Gildart’s students research and develop detailed excursions using Google Tour Builder, an application of the Google Earth platform, on topics such as a before-and-after analysis of Syrian war destruction.

“My students have been working with video for most of their lives,” Gildart says. “Video can and should be an equal part of the many ways for students to share their findings.”

Education is ultimately the transmission of a story about a subject—and stories are best when they are exchanged. The student-generated video is the back channel that closes the loop that started with the lecture.

In 1968, Mister Rogers changed the world of video and education by pausing on video to ask us what we think. Fifty years later, students have the technology to answer back.

Sean Brown, with years of experience in academic video production, is a consultant with Minneapolis-based Contegy Digital.