Oxford University Press An evaluation of the video and its associated print materials by Paul McGuinness, MD355, MEd ELT,
University of Manchester
August 1998 Introduction
Video (in its many forms) has been in use in ELT for around twenty years now, and during that time there has been a growth not only in the ideas concerning approaches to using video in the classroom but also in the amount and variety of material available commercially. This paper will examine one such commercially published piece of ELT material, Effective Presentations; written by Jeremy Comfort and published by Oxford University Press.
Effective Presentations is structured around the skills and language of presentations and is aimed at
professional people with an intermediate or higher-intermediate level of English (Comfort 1995c)
The course consists of a Teacher’s Book, Student’s Book, audio cassette and video cassette.
In this evaluation only the video cassette and relevant print materials associated with the use of video (cassette and camera) in Effective Presentations will be considered. The video materials can be used for three purposes in the course, for classroom instruction, for self-study and for analysis/evaluation (through the use of a video camera).
The purpose of the evaluation is to try and establish the appropriacy of the choice of video as a resource and the effectiveness of its exploitation. To this end, the evaluation has been conducted using criteria for determining the appropriateness of materials established by Breen and Candlin (1987: 13 - 28). The paper will determine the appropriacy of video to the learners’ needs and interests, will examine the content of the materials (both video cassette and related print materials), the appropriateness of the materials for self-study and the suggested use of the video camera for evaluation of student performance.
The materials will be examined throughout the paper with reference to developments in the use of video as a medium of instruction in ELT and the theory underlying that practice.
Video in Effective Presentations is used to present models of linguistic and paralinguistic features commonly found in presentations, which according to MacKnight (1983: 2) is very appropriate in a skills based course:
[video is] capable of developing a wide range of linguistic and semi-linguistic skills e.g. highlighting language functions, pinpointing non-verbal signals, showing the relationship between linguistic and paralinguistic features. The author’s own belief in the appropriacy of the medium is illustrated by his describing the video component as being “central to the course” (Comfort, 1995a: 4). This is an important move away from the tendency of much ELT video material to be merely supplementary to a course (Allen, 1985: 52) and it should be noted that “central” in this case does not mean domination because the video component has been carefully integrated with other resources (audiocassette, text based exercises and pair/group discussion) something which MacKnight notes is frequently associated with business English materials (1983: 6).
How the resources and materials have been integrated in Effective Presentations is also appropriate. In Effective Presentations units are structured in the following way;
the video cassette and print materials are used to present new language
the audio cassette and print materials are used for intensive listening and language practice
Presentation Practice :
students give a presentation or part of one based on the input from the previous two sections
This is a presentation, practice, production (PPP) approach which, although now under some scrutiny in ELT circles, has firm backing from both Lonergan and Tomalin who both advocate such integration in their work on using video in the classroom;
(Tomalin, 1986: 45)
The use of video to provide models of language is also appropriate because in this way language is seen being used in context (MacKnight, 1983: 2) and focus is drawn away from the teacher (Allen, 1985: 49).
As can be seen from the above outline of the unit structure in Effective Presentations, video is not used for intensive listening or detailed linguistic study. This is also very appropriate. The main reasons for this being that firstly, distortion or “slippage” in the soundtrack occurs when a video tape is paused and restarted (as noted by Allen, 1985: 65), secondly, that visuals have a tendency to distract students’ attention away from the audio (Willis D., 1983: 19) and finally, that often a visual can make a listening task less effective by being too supportive (Willis D., 1983: 19). The appropriateness of the choice that Comfort has made is further endorsed by Allen, who states that having the video soundtrack on audio tape is “the ideal” (1985: 65).
If, as Hutchinson (1987: 41) writes, evaluation is a matter of judging the fitness of something for a particular purpose then, from the above evidence, it can be deduced that the choice to use video in a skills based course such as Effective Presentations is appropriate.
The Video Materials
The Effective Presentations video is 35 minutes long and is divided into 16 short sequences each three to four minutes long. Each sequence is preceded by a caption with a tick “” or a cross “” signifying whether it is a “good” or “bad” model (Comfort, 1995b: 5) of presentation technique. There is an on-screen clock running continuously in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen.
Allen (1985: 65) writes that we should try and use video for the work it is best suited for. One of videos most powerful aspects is its ability to provide authentic language in context (MacKnight, 1983: 2, Allen, 1985: 48). The potential in both these areas (authentic language and language in context) has not been fully exploited by Effective Presentations. Firstly, scripted language (written by Comfort) has been favoured over authentic language and secondly, a full context is not provided by the video. Although various presenters are seen in relevant settings (a meeting room or a lecture hall for example) there is no audience, nor any shots of a wider context beyond the (front of the) room. The lack of an audience strips the presentations of atmosphere and creates the feeling of a staged event. The lack of a wider context is especially frustrating because of the expectations raised by the pictures in the student’s book (exterior and interior shots of buildings and people/audience). As it turns out, the pictures in the student’s book alone are used to establish crucial background information on which the language used by the speaker in the video has been determined.
That scripted materials can detract from video’s potential to provide authentic language and relevant context is evident, yet the choice can be understood if one takes into account the fact that few people would feel confident enough to allow a video of their presentation to be used for analysis (especially if used as an example of what not to do) and also that learners demand images of high quality (MacKnight, 1983: 12) which off-air or unscripted materials seldom provide.
In support of the decision to use scripted (“semi-authentic”) materials it should be noted that Effective Presentations does provide such images of high quality and, despite the comments above, the materials can still be very useful in a classroom situation. Although a full context is not set, sufficient contextual information is given to support learners' understanding of the language, and the language itself, though scripted, has not been simplified. In addition, the author has effectively exploited video’s ability to provide visual clues to aspects of communication like information weighting and attitude (Willis D., 1983: 21) as well as those used to supplement the message being conveyed (Willis J., 1983: 32). Finally, the technique of holding one camera shot for a long time to simulate the reality of actually sitting in a presentation which is employed in Effective Presentations has also been recommended as a useful exploitation of the video medium (Geddes 1982: 62).
The authors decision to provide “good” and “bad” models which have been crafted to highlight specific points can less easily be supported however. Instead of possible learner-centred explorations of authentic content in which linguistic and paralinguistic elements can be evaluated in a relevant context, Effective Presentations offers a teacher-centred (or here author-centred) provision of “correct” formats. If used as intended this approach offers little flexibility in how the video can be read and, as will be discussed next, when it is used in conjunction with the print materials, the way the video can be interpreted is further diminished.
The Print Materials
The print materials for Effective Presentations consist of a Student’s Book and a Teacher’s Book.
It has been written that the task for the print materials associated with video cassettes is to harness the “pleasant” aspects associated with TV viewing (Allen, 1985: 49, MacKnight, 1983: 10, Willis D., 1983: 17) whilst avoiding the well documented “dangers” inherent in a medium most commonly used for recreational purposes (Tomalin, 1983: 30, Lonergan, 1984; McGovern, 1983: 58) by not allowing the students to approach it in a passive way (Tomalin, 1983: 30). This is best done by introducing a variety of active viewing tasks which require careful preparation (Allen, 1985: 46) and by focusing students’ minds on what they are watching. (Tomalin, 1983: 30). Effective Presentations does this in two ways; with pre-viewing and viewing tasks.
The pre-viewing tasks in the Student’s Book involve two elements. Firstly, there are exercises which engage the students in thinking about general issues surrounding the topic of that unit (for example, looking at different ways of brainstorming and organising ideas before watching a video which highlights the discourse features associated with a structured presentation). Secondly, students read the Video Presentation Context which provides a lot of contextual details about the sequence to be seen (text and photographs). According to Tomalin such contextual details help prepare students for the general situation of the video (1983: 32). In addition to the above, students are often asked to consider what or how they would present the information given in the pre-viewing tasks in the context given, thus to some extent predicting what will appear on the video.
These approaches allow relevant vocabulary and structures to be generated and firmly establish a context for viewing. They also raise the students’ personal stake in the viewing as they will be interested to compare and contrast their own work with the models (both “bad” and “good”) given.
This engagement is maintained by viewing tasks in which a variety of recommended techniques are employed, for example sound off (Allen, 1985: 40) and freeze frame (Tomalin, 1986: 37), which are especially suitable for making students aware of behaviour patterns and the language associated with that behaviour (Tomalin, 1986: 40).
From the above evidence it can be seen that generally Effective Presentations has made effective use of techniques for using video in the classroom. Once again however the opportunity to fully exploit the potential of the medium has not been taken. Ideally, viewing tasks should focus a student’s attention on the video (Tomalin, 1986: 33) and get them viewing for a purpose (Allen, 1985:37), but in Effective Presentations every viewing task bears the instruction “as you watch take notes” which according to Allen (1985: 38) inevitably leads to students missing part of the programme as they look down at their paper.
Furthermore, while the text-based exercises associated with the Effective Presentationsvideo are seemingly "active" (as in "active-viewing"), they are actually constrained somewhat by the authors intentions, something which goes against recommendations made in the literature. Willis, D. (1983: 25) says that the language input of pre-viewing tasks should not include an exposition of the items to be taught, yet Comfort clearly sets out rules for both linguistic and paralinguistic features of presentations in the pre-viewing tasks. Subsequently rather than being able to infer meaning from a context in the viewing tasks as recommended by Willis (D., 1983: 23), students are restricted to identifying and confirming what has previously been set out by Comfort. This turns the use of video away from an active skills development approach to one of passive skills enforcement.
In addition to the Student’s Book the print materials associated with the video in Effective Presentations include a Teacher’s Book which aims to give guidance to teachers using the course. This is important as it must be noted that the tendency to regard the medium as a passive recreational activity is not only restricted to students - many teachers similarly tend to lose sight of language teaching objectives (Willis J., 1983: 43). Whereas the need for teachers to be encouraged simply to use the equipment (for example in Tomalin, 1986: 46, Allen, 1985: 31-35) is now not necessary, teachers still need to be trained in how to use the equipment for teaching purposes. For this reason it is still important to provide proper guidance to a teacher approaching the use of the medium in a classroom situation, especially if it is for the first time.
The guidance in the Teacher’s Book however, is very general and while providing teachers with some techniques on how to use video in the classroom (most notably in the introduction) does not usually suggest when or where these techniques could most profitably be used in the course itself. This could be welcomed by many experienced teachers, but may cause concern for those with less experience and could lead to both teachers and students failing to gain maximum potential from the materials.
Effective Presentations is proclaimed to be a self-study book:
This course is designed to work either as classroom or self-study material (Comfort, 1995b: 5)
Features that have been noted to make material particularly relevant to self-study include flexibility of sequencing and clarity of task and instruction (Motteram G. and Slaouti D., 1992: 26)
Effective Presentations does have a flexible format. Despite the fact that the course broadly follows the sequencing typically associated with a presentation the units do serve as independent learning entities, and because they are not linked with preceding chapters can be used in any order or simply dipped into to reinforce skills as necessary.
Clarity of task and instruction however is more problematic. Given the fact that students working alone with a video player are in the same position as a teacher using the machine in the classroom (Allen, 1985: 93) they should have guidelines for using video on their own, should understand the purpose of viewing techniques, and be encouraged to be active viewers (Allen, 1985: 94). In Effective Presentations it is unfortunate that much useful instructional material is contained in the teachers book only. Unless the student has access to both Student's and Teacher's books they may not be able to exploit the materials as effectively as possible.
A further complication in determining the appropriacy and effectiveness of the materials for self study is that Comfort's definition of self study seems to be what others would refer to as “homework”, that is, teacher directed tasks that are integrated into the class work but which are to be completed outside the classroom (usually at home).
A good point for self access is the on screen clock which provides a clear time reference, although little use of it is actually made in the text materials as the video is usually watched straight through.
Suggested Use of the Video Camera
The author suggests that the teacher use a video camera to record presentations given by learners for the purpose of feedback on their performance (Comfort, 1995a: 7).
The suggested use of a video camera in Effective Presentations is very appropriate because the use of productive video applications to provide a basis for diagnosis, correction and reteaching has a long history in skills training (Zoltan, 1998: 5, Cooper, 1991: 3). It is also seen as being especially stimulating and interesting for the learner (Lonergan, 1990: 1) and is especially good at showing up wider communicative problems (Hick et al, u/d: 76). Video’s ability to capture the total context helps students become aware of the appropriateness of the language, register, attitudes and gestures they have used (Phillips, 1982: 95) and also helps them relive the moment and locate the mental process which caused a difficulty (Hicks et al, 1982: 75). All of this can be achieved in a process regarded by the students as “fair” (McGovern, 1983: 63).
Evaluation is the most important aspect of any video-productive educational procedure (Zoltan, 1998: 6) for which there is a variety of methods (Hick et al, 1982: 77) including;
joint teacher/learner-controlled and
The guidelines in the Teacher's Book touch upon these areas and provide teachers with a good basis from which to start using video in the classroom. According to (McGovern, 1983: 63) students are their own best critics and Comfort encourages the teacher to initially give the platform to the student for the purpose of self evaluation to be followed by constructive teacher-centred criticism.
Cultural factors that can affect such evaluation work (for example in peer evaluation) are also outlined, and the importance of structuring an evaluation (as has been noted by Lonergan (1990: 3) is stressed.
It should be noted that video plays only a small role in Effective Presentations and that a coherent analysis of the course as a whole has not been attempted in this paper. The video component alone has been evaluated in an attempt to assess whether the use of video is appropriate for learners’ needs in the course and how effectively video has been utilised in relation to recommendations made on such use in the literature.
It has been found that video is a very appropriate medium for use in a presentations skills course. It offers learners access to language in context and more importantly can present them with examples of paralinguistic elements that are an important part of presentations. The alternatives to using video are to use cassette tape which allows sound only or to rely on the teacher to present examples of paralinguistic elements. Neither of these approaches is as satisfactory as using video.
The use of a video camera for analysing student presentations is also highly appropriate for use in a presentations skills course. With careful introduction (in a learner-centred way) students will welcome the benefits provided by the medium. The video camera can be an effective evaluation tool which takes the responsibility for analysis, and the setting of objectives away from the teacher, and puts them under the learner’s control. Issues of relevance here are that as McGovern has said students are their own best critics (1983: 63) and viewing themselves on video will have far more impact than repeated advice from a teacher. One self-critical viewing of a personal presentation can help a student identify and seek to remedy negative features of their presentations with little or no in-put from the teacher.
The course meets the needs of its audience by clearly defining what Dougill (u/d: 29) has called a target group, both in the cover notes (professional, intermediate level learners) and in its title Effective Presentations. It meets their interests by being relevant, practical and accessible. Relevant, because all the materials fit the learners’ long term goals (to learn about presentations). Practical, because there is an emphasis on student-centred discussion, preperation and giving of presentations throughout the course. Accessible, because the course format is flexible and does not have to be followed from beginning to end.
The materials also meet the needs of the audience by being well made and well presented. For professionals used to high standards of presentation and images this is important. Effective Presentations is attractively packaged, the print materials are well designed and the sound, image and production quality of the video is good too.
One area where the materials could appear not to be appropriate however, is in their recommendation as self-study materials. As suggested above it appears Comfort’s use of the term self-study refers to teacher-directed learning outside the classroom. This is a perfectly reasonable use of the term, but it could be more clearly stated as it could cause confusion amongst teachers or students who associate the term self-study with concepts of learner-directed study (whether at home or in the library).
In Comfort’s terms it is appropriate to suggest that certain text–based exercises be completed at home, so that valuable class-time can be spent discussing and practising relevant skills associated with presentations
In terms of learner-directed study however, the materials do not provide sufficient guidance to be appropriate or effective.
Finally it should be noted that the construction of the materials does tend to make the course very teacher-directed. This does not allow the course to fully exploit the potential of video that has been written about in the literature. However, it should be stated that this does not detract from the materials overall worth. If a teacher wishes to, she can isolate certain elements of the course and use them in a more learner-centred way.
Hutchinson (1987: 41) has stressed the need to match learning situations to teaching materials and, in conclusion, it must be said that many teachers will find the video and related print materials in Effective Presentations appropriate and useful for teaching presentation skills.
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