Getting Students Started with Video Literacy

Given the prominence of television and film in our culture, it is surely desirable that our students should be able to analyze moving images as carefully as we want them to read prose.

We can strengthen our students' ability to decode images by also asking them to 'write' a message in moving images. But working with video can be intimidating. We are accustomed to thinking of the most sophisticated professional media production.

There are, however, a few simple ways to raise your students' level of facility in thinking in moving images. And a basic ability to capture, share and edit video clips is the basis for anything more complex.

There is no value in adding video production on top of and separate from other course goals. A better strategy is rather to use video as a platform to support typical liberal arts activities. E.g.,

  • discussion & commentary,
  • demonstration & oral presentation,
  • observation & data collection.

The first three steps can be outlined quickly.

1. Capture, upload, share.

This is the most basic workflow: capture some images, get them on a computer, and share them somehow.

The main thing to notice here is: we are not talking about editing. Before students an become competent editors, they simply need to record footage and share it.

Devices for capturing video were once expensive and technically forbidding. Now most students can capture video using:

  • a laptop,
  • a camera, or
  • a smartphone.

You might ask students to:

  • interview each other or record a short commentary--rather than posting to a discussion board,
  • give a short presentation or demonstrate a skill (as in the case of foreign language skills),
  • gather or observe visual information--e.g., about buildings, plants, social interactions, etc.

Sharing short videos on Youtube is very easy.

  • Some phones and laptops have this as a default option when saving a video.
  • You can ask students to post a link in an online discussion board.
  • "Unlisted" videos in Youtube are not index and not searchable, so they are as good as private.

It's always advisable to start any assignment that requires the use of technology as simply as possible and to grade so as to reward completion rather than to expect sophistication right out of the gate.

2. Trim or split a clip.

After you are certain students can capture video and share it, you can start asking them to select and sharpen their messages.

Trimming and splitting are the most basic kinds of editing.

  • Trimming means: removing the ends of a clip.
  • Splitting means: dividing a single clip into one or more clips.

Clearly: trimming is easier. The implication is: you are throwing away some information you don't need.

Trimming and splitting are the beginning of saying something precise using video. A recording can be done to include only what's essential. But as with writing or any art form, you aren't really 'speaking' until you are leaving something out.

One good reason to start with these skills is: trimming and splitting can be done right in Youtube. So students need no special software: just a web browser. There's even a Youtube video that explains the basics.

Assignments that work well here include:

  • select the single most important moment from an interview;
  • capture a discussion and then share only the highlights;
  • observe a natural or social phenomena and share only the most important elements.

Once students can capture & share, trim & split, they can begin making more complex video messages in earnest.

3. Get started in iMovie.

If you actually want your students to:

  • shoot more than one clip,
  • trim and split clips into individual shots,
  • combine shots into a meaningful sequence,

then you are talking about editing proper.

Here students will need specific requirements about what they should turn in. Just as you would ask for five pages of argumentative prose, you might ask for x minutes of no more than y shots making an argument or telling a story.

In terms of technology, iMovie is the simplest tool available. It's on many students' computers, and in some colleges and universities, it's on every lab computer.

  • If it is a short project, can be finished in one sitting and need never be revised, the students can put the files temporarily on a lab computer
  • If the project:
    • requires more than one person to work on it,
    • must be completed in several sittings,
    • must be revised, then the project and footage should be stored on an external hard drive.

iMovie Best Practices

  • Students will run into problems if they try to move from later versions of iMovie to earlier ones. So the best practice is to start a project on the oldest version of iMovie they will work with.

  • It is always a good idea to back up both the project and its footage regularly.

    • How often? How much work would you like to lose? Back up every time you finish work you don't want to re-do.
  • Similarly, it's wise simply to render a draft of your work, even a short segment, periodically. This way if you lose the original footage, you still have something you can edit down.

And just as you might ask students to turn in drafts of a written paper, asking for drafts of video assignments helps both you and the student.

  • You can make sure the student is working iteratively, drafting & improving, rather than trying to do everything in one sitting.
  • You help the student create drafts that can be used if the original footage gets lost or corrupted.
  • The road to video literacy is littered with obstacles. But the same methods used to teach anything--plus a bit of patience--will generally work well.

    • Start with simple assignments.
    • Use clear initial criteria.
    • Grade generously earlier on.
    • Don't expect miracles.
    • Build up gradually by creating a community organized around discussing your and the students' emergent understandings and standards.

    --Edward R. O'Neill


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