How to Use Screencasting to Improve Students’ Research Methods

If you could make a movie of sorts as you talked over a presentation being made on your computer screen — not just that drab PowerPoint presentation but anything, including, say, statistical programs – which could be viewed by students later (and forever), would you see any value in that?

Christine McKenna Lok does, and the lecturer in the Simmons College School of Social Work here answers some questions about the pedagogic method known as “screencasting.”


The Educause website offers this quick definition on its screencasting cheat sheet:

A screencast is a screen capture of the actions on a user’s computer screen, typically with accompanying audio. … In the same way that a screenshot is a static representation of a computer screen at a point in time, a screencast captures what happens on a monitor over a period of time.

Christine McKenna Lok
Christine McKenna Lok

McKenna Lok uses screencasting in her classrooms to improve students’ methods for research, discovering in the process that some of the assumptions she’s made about their web savviness were overly optimistic. Here she answers some questions about her experiences with screencasting.

McKenna Lok earned her master’s in social work from Saint Louis University and her Ph.D. in social science from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Before entering academia, her work experience included research and advocacy roles for a statewide anti-poverty organization in New York and for a local United Way in Massachusetts.

What motivated you to incorporate screencast software into your course?

I taught for the past few years in the undergraduate social work program at Regis College, a small liberal arts college outside Boston. In fall 2012, the college began distributing iPads to all full-time undergraduates and encouraging faculty to make the most of this new technology. After participating in training for faculty about applications for screencast software in teaching, I realized screencasts would be a great way to capture how students were using the college’s electronic databases. In the past, I had heard from students that they had been unable to find journal articles related to topics that I knew had to be represented in the literature. I also knew from class sessions and one-on-one work with students that many shortcuts I’d learned over the years for searches (for instance, putting quotes around exact phrases) were not second-nature to them yet. The screencasts would show me what their search strategies were and offer a chance for individualized feedback to make their processes more efficient.

Innovative teaching in social work awards

The SAGE/Council on Social Work Education Award for Innovative Teaching in Social Work Education, established in February 2012, honors and recognizes innovative teaching in social work education. At this year’s CSWE annual meeting in October, Christine McKenna Lok, a lecturer in the Simmons College School of Social Work, and Leslie Hollingsworth, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, were the recipients. Hollingsworth was honored for her successful efforts to create an “africentric” course — “An Africentric Approach to Interpersonal Practice with African American Families” — at her home institution. (SAGE is the parent of Social Science Space.)

What did you learn from this experience?

Three things really stood out. First, I learned that many of my undergraduate students were not looking up vocabulary words they didn’t recognize, even if the words appeared in multiple article abstracts that surfaced during their searches. By pointing out those key terms that experts were using related to the students’ topics, I was able to help students focus their searches. Second, I learned that there was a wide variety of skill levels in incorporating the search strategies we had covered in class and I was able to remind individual students about tips they had forgotten or misunderstood. Finally, I also learned that students tended to limit searches to articles available electronically in full-text, even when the students had plenty of time to inter-library loan articles before their final assignment was due.

What tips might you give other professors looking to incorporate screencasting into their courses?

I assigned several screencasts over the course of the semester. In order to introduce and troubleshoot the screencast technology, I started out with a non-threatening assignment asking students to introduce themselves to their classmates and me by narrating a slide show of photos of themselves. By requiring several research searches throughout the course, I was able to watch students as they improved their skills and gained speed in finding relevant articles.

What tips would you give to professors hoping to improve research skills in their students?

I would suggest that faculty members not assume millennial students who grew up on computers are skilled at the most effective search strategies for finding reliable information on the web. Even that group of students can benefit from reviewing the way that search engines and electronic databases work.

Why did you originally decide to become a professor of social work?

I was earning my master’s in social work in the mid-1990s, as welfare debates were heating up across the country. I was involved through my practicum with a welfare rights organization and thought better research into poverty would result in better welfare policies. My Ph.D. program was eye-opening as I realized entire libraries could be filled with the poverty research that already existed! Being a social work professor has offered a wonderful chance to stay informed about current social welfare issues, to hear through my students and their fieldwork supervisors about what’s happening on the ground, and to bring expert knowledge to policy-makers.

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