Creative Online Tutorials

For Einstein Student, "Going to the Video" Is Purely Academic

Ross Firestone understands studying. A second-year M.D.- Ph.D. student at Einstein, Mr. Firestone is preparing for the board exams that medical students take at the end of their second year. But he also is helping undergraduates prepare for the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, taken as part of one's application to medical school.

Ross Firestone
Ross Firestone, second-year M.D-Ph.D. student/video producer
Mr. Firestone is one of just 15 winners of the Khan Academy MCAT Video Competition, in which entrants were asked to produce online tutorials—educational videos in conjunction with practice questions. He is creating tutorials for the revised MCAT, which will include a new focus on social and behavioral sciences, scheduled to be introduced in 2015.

The contest was sponsored by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which administers the MCAT; Khan Academy, a nonprofit provider of online educational resources; and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the prominent philanthropic organization. Participants had to submit three educational videos and ten practice questions that they produced on MCAT-related topics. The competition drew dozens of entrants from more than 20 states.

Mr. Firestone and the other winners, selected this past summer, represent a diverse range of backgrounds, including students from top medical schools, college and graduate students, a nurse, and a neurology professor. They attended a week-long "boot camp" near the Khan Academy's headquarters in San Francisco where they received training in advanced video production and question-writing. Since completing the training, all 15 winners have been commissioned to produce tutorials that will become part of free, online libraries maintained by both Khan Academy and the AAMC.

View Mr. Firestone’s videos
The tutorials, the first of which went online in the fall of 2013, are intended to provide all students studying for the MCAT with access to high-quality test preparation resources.

"Online learning is an increasingly powerful tool for educating and informing the next generation of physicians," said Dr. Rishi Desai, a pediatric infectious disease specialist who manages medical education at Khan. "By partnering with talented individuals like Ross to create these materials, Khan and other educators have the exciting potential of truly transforming education and making knowledge available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection."

Until entering the competition last April, Mr. Firestone had never created a video even though his father is a multimedia producer. "I decided to do it because it sounded like fun," he said. Thus far, he's produced 22 tutorials for Khan, 12 of which have posted, with the others under review and more to come.

Mr. Firestone estimates that he worked more than 40 hours preparing his first three videos for the competition. "Most of that time was spent teaching myself how to shoot the videos. There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimenting," he said. "Now that I've got a system developed, each video takes less time."

Arranging his "stage" for the videos was an easier task. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, the Toronto native studied an unusual double concentration: biochemistry and theater design.

Lights, camera…
Lights, camera…
His winning entry focused on acid-base chemistry. While the topic is a traditional one for MCAT preparation, his approach to it was unlike that of the other winners. While most used tablet computers to create high-tech diagrams and illustrations of their subjects, Mr. Firestone's approach involved much lower-tech tools—a whiteboard and colored markers. His filming equipment also was modest, consisting of the video camera on his smart phone.

"The Khan faculty pointed out that I'd used an unusual technique in my submission," he said. "But I also think it was more engaging."

In addition to their unusual production, Mr. Firestone's three submitted videos were shorter than most other entries, with run times between two and five minutes each. To accompany the videos, Mr. Firestone put together passage-based questions that were aimed at reinforcing key concepts in the tutorial.

"My goal was to emulate a fast-paced YouTube lesson, not a college lecture. I think the type of student looking for an online tutorial is seeking something different than a student in a lecture hall," he said. "These tutorials may not replace lectures and traditional ways of learning, but they can certainly be a useful adjunct to them."

In his current work for the academy, Mr. Firestone follows a proscribed curriculum. But he's free to use his creativity when it comes to production style.

"The most important thing is to use an approach that allows students to connect with the material in a way that makes sense to them," he said. "With the right technology, the potential seems almost unlimited."

Meanwhile, the work is aiding Mr. Firestone's own education.

"I have to constantly learn the subject matter," he said. "I enjoy that opportunity. After all, learning is what any scientist has to do."

Posted on: Thursday, February 06, 2014