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?
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