Making Multimedia Choices: It's Not Whack-a-Mole!

If you think it’s easy to move what you know about, say, prose writing to a new medium–like video–you are wrong.

I recently supported an eager professor and a dozen willing students in a humanities course. The professor and I fashioned a number of ways the students could use video to capture and present their scholarly conversations. Another professor in the role of mentor also pitched in.

Yet for all our efforts–which were not inconsiderable–we could not budge the students from: recording their conversations on video.

The students never got around to using the medium, as we like to say. The professor I was supporting saw it. I saw it. We tried to help the students adapt on their second attempts. We had no luck.

So when we tell students in higher ed to “use the medium,” what do we mean? Do they understand us? Could we explain it better?

  • A painter might use thick paint here and thin paint there.
  • A screenwriter might write one scene without dialogue, another scene as a montage, and another scene as a monologue.
  • A web page might be laid out with a few images, some different sizes and colors of font.

In each case, we expect the intelligent artist, writer or coder to make these formal choices based on specific goals. The person doing the communicating might ask herself:

  • What do I want to communicate?
  • How do I want the recipient to feel?
  • What meanings am I trying to reflect?
  • What formal patterns can I use to reflect those meanings?
  • What kind of position do I want to put the reader in? What do I want to make her do?
  • Etc.

In short, communication in a medium means mapping the formal choices of that medium to one’s goals–specific meanings, strategies, or interactions with the recipient.

In the case of this humanities course, the results were not what we’d hoped for.

  • Some students never made a single edit nor moved the camera.
  • Others made edits and changed camera angles, but there was no particular way the position of the camera interacted with the content of the conversation the students recorded.

So students capable of using paragraphs, introductions, transitions, probably even longer vs. shorter sentences, could not lay their hands on anything similar in the video medium.

Although the students did not succeed in transferring what they already knew to a new platform, I did not blame the students. Rather, I asked myself what I could have done differently.

Some weeks later, I realized what was missing:

(a) any support for the students in making specific formal choices, or
(b) genres–typical combinations of formal choices and meanings in recognizable patterns.

If you don’t help people see where the choices are and make them, the decision points don’t just automatically pop into view. Learning is not Whack-a-Mole: choices just don't pop up into the learner's consciousness; you have to help the learner find the opportunities to practice a new skill.

How to do that–to model and support formal choices in multimedia authoring–is what I’ll write about next time.

–Edward R. O’Neill


  1. Great post, Ed. Lots to think about. I think part of what you are getting at is a question about why multimedia authoring in humanities courses do not achieve their expressive potential. From a cinematic perspective, one could say you are finding them turning in "filmed plays from the center of the 5th row" and you ask yourself, why are they not doing so much more than just repeating an earlier, established form?

    To me, part of the answer lies in design blindness - a sense that until proven otherwise, they actually are quite comfortable with the still-working-quite-well-thank-you-very-much modes of scholarly conversation, and those older forms persist as reasonably powerful designs due to their familiarity, conventions, perdurance, etc. Another part of the answer is a corollary to design blindness, a kind of skeuomorphism - they are not seeking to create a new kind of scholarly language. Give them digital vellum and they will want to engage in calligraphy. Give them videos and they still want to privilege alphabetic text as organizational principle. As in all skeuomorphs, there is a comfort in relying on the conventions of the previous form in the new form - the way a calculator looks on an iPhone, or almost any digital calendar app resembling an old fashioned wall calendar.

    But if what I just said has some help towards diagnosing the problem, what are some ways to break through towards a solution? I agree with your assessment that you have to "help the learner find the opportunities to practice a new skill." I think typically multimedia authoring projects are not unusual enough in their design to justify an unusual approach in the use of a new medium.

    One tactic I have used in the past is to design a project that simply cannot be done on paper. If the student could acheive the same scholarly outcome using paper, why on earth use video? Why increase the cognitive load, unless one is also simultaneously trying to teach multimedia authorship as the learning outcome? But if the goal is disciplinary knowledge, then I have tried to create projects that interrupt the basic conditions underlying existing scholarly conversations. I have in assignments such as the one I believe you are describing, dictated things like number of edits, the nature of sound design, etc. I have used creative constraints (in the style of Lars Von Trier in the 5 Obstructions, or in the work of the Oulipo) to force students into unnatural solutions via constraints that intentionally forces them to think differently about the project. I have used paper prototyping and storyboards to get students to begin thinking in a different visual register before I give them a video camera.

    And I try to supply students with models of what I want - they have years of examples (in many cases) of what qualifies as good academic writing, but what reservoir of knowledge are they drawing in terms of scholarly multimedia authorship? Watching TV and films? That's not adequate - they need to see how multimedia authorship changes the nature of scholarly evidence, the voice of scholarly rhetoric, the temporal and spatial dimension of embodied information, the circuits of communication, the polyphonic vicissitudes of multimodal argumentation... Part of what has helped me is that starting at the IML, I have been able to curate examples that help me break through some of the problems you witnessed. That said, I still have my share of students who actively resist making new multimedia choices, so there is no perfect solution here. Just opportunities to create some interesting learning moments.

    Best, Rich Edwards

  2. Rich,

    I think we are on the same page.

    Scholarly prose also tends to be conservative, so then the most conservative cinematic/videographic choices tend to follow suit.

    I was hoping one student project would involve a camera roving around students reflecting in monologues as they got their nails done and discussing the reading with a hairdresser doing their hair. Very Almodovar. But that did not happen.

    I really just think: the students lack models and genres. They haven't *seen* what we want them to do. They think: panel chat show, and some professors may even want that. The whole discussion about academic genres is very young.

    Next week, I'll post the planning I did for multimedia authoring in a playwriting course. There, the instructor and I found discipline-specific models and genres we hope will support effective student authoring of multimedia plays and 'productions' of plays.

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