Four Steps Towards Student Video Literacy

The media landscape is changing faster than it ever has. Each week it seems a newspaper or magazines is sold or folds. Corporations and government agencies alike increasingly communicate in 140-character tweets or videos.

Our college students will of course need to be able to read these messages critically. But a good step in that direction is for students to communicate thoughtfully using those same platforms.

apparently, my daughter is being taught by a hologram

Video is perhaps the most challenging such platform. In terms of hardware and software, it’s much easier to make a video than it used to be: you can probably use your phone or digital camera to do so. But still, your students won’t become expert at making videos in a single step.

Nevertheless, there are some strategies you can use to weave videomaking into your course so students become effective communicators using video. But this should not be a separate activity: to be efficient and meaningful, using video should merge and engage with the key problems of your discipline.

1. Use vernacular technology: what a student has in her backpack.

The simplest way to do this is to survey students to find out what they already have and know. You can ask them:

  • Do they have a device that can capture video?
    • Is it HD (high-definition) quality?
  • Do they have a device that will capture audio?
  • Do they have experience using iMovie? Some other video editing software?

In my experiences working at the University of Southern California (a large private university), one third to 90% of students have the relevant equipment.

  • 75–90% of students have a smartphone.
  • 30–40% have a still camera that shoots video.
  • 85% have a laptop with a webcam.
  • One third of students know they own a device that shoots HD.

In addition, one quarter to half the students I work with have relevant editing experience.

  • 40–50% have experience using iMovie.
  • 30–50% have experience using other video editing software.
  • 40–50% have experience editing audio.
  • 25–40% have significant photographic experience.

This implies that when we put our students in groups of two, three or four, equipment and skills will not be a problem. In short: rather than you teaching the students, they will be sharing skills with each other.

2. Ask the students to master a simple workflow–and stick to it.

Not all video and audio toys “play well” together.

Recently, I recorded some audio on my phone. The video editing software I was using would not suck in the files. So I had to find a workaround: using a free piece of software to change the file format. Once I had the workaround, I was ready to go. But what if I had changed equipment partway through? I might get stuck.

This is the idea of workflow. Camera A may not shoot footage that can be imported into Software B. So once Marilyn starts shooting video with her phone and importing it to iMovie in the lab, she should stick with that. If Marilyn tries to use footage from Joseph’s phone, it may not work.

So the key question is this.

  • Can your students capture video footage, transfer it to a computer, and ‘publish’ it–e.g., to Youtube?
    • Many smartphones upload video directly to Youtube.
    • The most useful privacy setting for Youtube is “unlisted” or “share by link.” This means that the student can share the link with the instructor and fellow students (in the campus LMS, for instance), but the video is not indexed and not searchable–hence very unlikely to be stumbled across.

There are challenges in just capturing, editing and publishing video footage. But once those are mastered, the students can move on to more substantive challenges. This implies giving students multiple assignments which are similar and which build on each other.

3. Start simple and integrate technology with routine class activities and core scholarly values.

The most basic form of editing is: trimming. This means cutting off the ends of a clip.

  • Think of a home video. You captured your child practicing her swing, going up to bat, not swinging on a couple of balls, swinging and missing a couple of times, then getting a base it. You really just want the base hit and running to first. You can trim the rest.

Likewise, your students need to be able to isolate some important part of their footage. What is “important” or “interesting” is determined by your discipline and the course topic. So the formal exercise of trimming footage actually aligns with disciplinary concerns.

  • Can your students find the most important parts of their footage?
  • Can your students trim their footage and share only the ‘important’ bits?
    • Youtube actually has this ‘trimming’ function built-in. So students don’t even need any special software. They can capture video on a phone, upload to Youtube, and trim the footage there.

4. Try pairing video with discussion and reflection assignments.

  • I frequently suggest instructors ask students to discuss course topics with each other or to reflect upon their responses to course materials.
  • Video can be used to capture these discussions and reflections, so students are exploring how to capture clear pictures and sounds at the same time they are engaging with the course material–just as our students improve their prose writing skills.

A basic discussion assignment can be modified to combine technical and substantive issues which students need to master in order to move onward. E.g.,

Consider this question: “Should we consider Moby Dick a part of the transcendentalist movement or no?” Interview your peer for no more than 15 minutes and then post three of the most relevant one-minute clips. Interview her in three different lighting situations: direct light, diffuse light, shadow.

  • Your in-class discussion about the video discussion can then also address how which lighting is more and less problematic.
  • The same assignment can be done with sound using this modification: Interview her in: a quiet outdoor space, a noisy indoor space, a quiet indoor space.

Will these four steps turn your students into Orson Welles? No. But that’s not the point. As with so many skills: start small, build on what you already have, make the tasks meaningful.

–Edward R. O’Neill


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