June 22, 2016

DIY or Buy? The Hidden Costs of ‘Free’ Video Observation Systems

The reason I left my sixth grade social studies classroom after only a few years of teaching was the feeling that I wasn’t getting better, only more frustrated. I was observed only twice in my tenure as a teacher, and had no peer observation at all.

I’m not the only one who leaves the classroom for this reason. As highlighted in TNTP’s The Irreplaceables, 74% of high achieving teachers leave the profession because they are not getting critical, regular feedback.

However, what is promising is that since I left the classroom, more and more districts are standardizing timely, high quality feedback for teachers. Not only that, districts are seeing how video can improve practice—similar to how athletes have been reliant on game tape to improve their game for decades.

And research is backing this up. Recently, the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University conducted a study with educators nationwide entitled, The Best Foot Forward Project, that examined how video technology improves the classroom observation process. 

The study found that teachers who watched their own lessons via video were more self-critical and identified previously unobserved student behaviors. In addition, they perceived supervisors to be more supportive and observations to be reasonable.

Great news, right? Well, as video is becoming a non-negotiable in teacher growth, it brings with it a new set of considerations for districts, especially in terms of time and costs.

So what does it take to create a video observation and coaching system—formal or informal? Here are the four pieces.

arrow_dark_right.png Hardware: Video cameras and the cables to connect it to a computer or another device.

arrow_dark_right.png Secure video storage and sharing: Using tools such as a cloud storage drive, or even passing around a hard drive are two options for how videos can be stored and shared. 

arrow_dark_right.png Data management: Many free web form tools are available that enable data collection and storage.

arrow_dark_right.png Video and data communication tools: A direct and secure line of communication–like email– is necessary to share video information and assignments, receive notifications around participation, and disseminate the resulting data. 

Now what?

At this point you’ve got two options to put these pieces together: do it yourself with free apps or subscribe to an off-the-shelf platform like ADVANCEfeedback®. From my experience as a teacher and working in a central district office, “free” never really means free.

At the outset, it seems like a great option to build a platform yourself. However, when you begin to examine the real cost of either “free” or “custom” tools, the long term benefits of a configurable, managed platform become pretty clear.

Let’s take a deeper dive in to the costs of what it means to do-it-yourself.

1. Tools may be free, but people’s time and expertise aren’t.

With all the great free tools and apps out there now, the DIY approach to video observation is possible. Keep in mind, though, selecting different tools requires people’s time and expertise—often significant—to choose, use, and maintain.

Depending on the size of a district, personnel will need to:
• assign observers the right video links
• track who has viewed which videos
• design and assign the right web forms for input
• manage the resulting data in spreadsheets and tables.

In addition to the tasks above, personnel are needed to manipulate the large sets of raw data and generate useful reports. This requires both clear goals and technical skill in data reporting.

While platforms like ADVANCEfeedback® are not without cost as they still require an internal champion and manager, a district can save significant costs in human capital expenditures when partnering with a platform provider.

In my work in a central district office, I facilitated a manual process using free tools from Google and Microsoft, and once calculated that an automated observation system would free up four full-time employees!  Breaking down our time spent, we’re talking about hundreds of dollars a day (based on our salaries) to manage a system that seemed “free” at the outset.

2. Data security requires the right tools, business processes and expertise.

The security of a system that requires data to move across multiple platforms and through multiple hands is risky at best. Controlling for versions of data that is stored on multiple computers and hard drives is virtually impossible.

The other challenge is that teachers and administrators are some of the busiest people I know, so a system that requires them to log in and out of multiple platforms can become a bigger burden than the pain point it is designed to solve, and easily cause frustration or disillusionment.

Data security is one of the top priorities of a video platform provider. At Insight ADVANCE, we’ve built in several policy and technical security measures to ensure data is protected.

3. Building your own system can be expensive and time-consuming.

Some districts have decided that the solution is to build their own system from the ground up with development partners. The advantage is that districts get to create tools that match exactly to their needs and specifications.

However, coming from first hand-experience with this in my own work, developing your own platform can get expensive really fast. It not only requires paying for software development, on-going maintenance and regular updates to keep up with the latest technology but hiring and managing a development team, which can cost anywhere from between $100,000 to $800,000 per year depending on the size of the district. At the end of the day, this requires significant long-term investment. 

When you subscribe to a platform, the district’s users are getting the benefits of continual upgrades and enhancements based on feedback from across the entire user base. In addition, educators have access to user technical support—often beyond traditional school hours—which can never be underestimated.

The bottom line is that your educators’ time and resources are better spent focusing less on the technology and more on providing innovative, meaningful ways to provide feedback that is going to make an impact on teacher growth.

If you’re starting to explore how video can change teacher practice in your school or district, be sure to check out Game Changer: Using video to achieve high performance in the classroom | Playbook for School & District Leaders.


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