Caught on camera: could CCTV transform your lesson observations?

First published by the Guardian on Saturday 31 August 2013.

“Oceanians live in a constant state of being monitored by the Party, through the use of advanced, invasive technology,” states George Orwell in 1984. This monitoring, according to Orwell, is the application of “science and technology to curtail human freedom and privacy, and to control human behaviour.”

Of course, Orwell’s terrifying fiction is increasingly seen as prophecy by some, especially as society is subject to evermore surveillance.

Schools have not been left out of this discussion. Annette Fuentes argues in her book, Lockdown High, that increased policing and electronic surveillance means some US schools “resemble places of detention more than places of learning.”

In the UK, 85% of schools use CCTV and there is considerable debate on the merits of this. Some argue that CCTV prevents bullying and increases child safety. Others think these technologies go too far and give teachers powers they don’t really want.

Bearing in mind the pros and cons of the above debate, it was with some caution that I was co-opted into using video to observe my own lessons. I was asked to make a training video for an inset day on the dos and don’ts of questioning and answering – using ideas from a previous Guardian Teacher Network blog.

The students were fully aware of the recording and the video included deliberate mistakes as well as good practice. The film was used to demonstrate how to target questions and give students thinking time. It was edited so we could discuss the key issues raised by the techniques used and debate the quality of student responses. Feedback from staff was positive.

Videoed observations have taken a great leap forward in my school due to the arrival of an IRIS camera. This camera allows a remote observer to have 360 degree views of the classroom without actually being present.

I was taken aback at first by the idea of observations taking place by remote controlled video. But it is important not to get carried away with dystopia-tainted paranoia. The IRIS camera has many benefits and has now been welcomed by staff as a tool for improving teaching and learning. Far from being used for surveillance, IRIS has only ever been used with the permission of staff. IRIS is first and foremost used for coaching and mentoring. All recordings are encrypted and only accessible to those involved with the observation. In fact, staff have been encouraged to use this to evaluate their own practice and it has not been employed to observe staff for appraisals – although the option is viable if teachers so wish.

What is really useful is the ability to highlight good practice and areas for improvement. Recordings can be fast forwarded or rewound to focus on various talking points; this forms an important part of teacher development. Research at Pennsylvania State University has shown that using video technologies in observations enables teachers to connect theory and practice, improve instruction and focus on student-centered thinking. Research in the journal Teaching and Teacher Education found that video-based reflection also allows teachers to observe how students interact through class work, whether they are engaged with the content and whether they react to instruction. This is easier than relying on memory to reflect on these issues.

The use of IRIS also bypasses the Hawthorn Effect, where students act differently – be that playing up or behaving perfectly – because they know they’re being observed. In this way, IRIS arguably gives a better picture of the dynamics of the class than traditional observations. It should be noted, however, that the most beneficial observations include 50% use of IRIS and 50% with the observer in the class to scrutinise students’ work and assess progress.

IRIS technology, therefore, should be seen as a welcome addition to improving teaching and learning. As long as leadership and staff are open about its use, its purpose and the outcomes from observations, then it shouldn’t be feared. The nature of video observation in schools is much more collaborative than its fictional counterpart.

Picture credit: Pixels (Creative Commons CC0)

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