Friday, May 24, 2013

Scaffolding Video Instruction

Hubert Nguyen video editing tools

Certainly we can teach students some video skills. But which skills?

  • How do we rationally choose which video skills to teach?
  • In what order do we teach them?
  • And how do we combine video instruction with the rest of our instruction–so it’s not just “you read and studied, now go and make a video.”

The answer in a single word is: scaffolding. We start simple. We begin with more basic or lower-order skills. And we match the task to the relevant criteria, so students can go from success to success, succeeding first at simpler tasks and mastering them before advancing to greater challenges.

How do we do that? We use video technology the same way we use all instructional technologies.

And thereby we stumble into a hornet’s nest.

Is there a more abused phrase than “instructional technology” or “educational technology”? If you’re like me, you remember when that meant: an overhead projector or a VCR. Never: chalk or a map. And yet aren’t those “tools” as well?

But if you think about some very familiar “instructional technologies,” they actually give us a very good image of the purposes or functions we need to perform in the classroom–and beyond.

  • The instructor writes on a blackboard or whiteboard. By doing this, the instructor’s message becomes easier to see in the back row. And it’s easier for students to reflect on and perhaps take down something that endures for several minutes–as opposed to the disappearing stream of oral discourse.
  • A student takes notes with a pencil and paper–or records a lecture with a voice recorder. This is also very practical. Even if it didn’t help the student commit information to memory, the act of writing leaves a concrete record to which the student can return later.
  • A map or a microscope slides provide evidence the students explore, analyze and use. Here the evidence depends on the discipline. Geography has need of maps. Biology has need of tissue samples. Language classes have recorded examples of native speakers.
  • A poem or painting serves as an exemplary of an art form: students unpack its many meanings and analyze its devices. To understand what a work of art is you’ve got to encounter one. However you define “art,” you’re usually looking at something complex and multilayered whose meanings must be extracted through interpretation and by reference to the history of the medium, its most expert practitioners.

In short, instruction uses tools that serve different purposes or functions–each with its own kind of criteria. (And we can infer the functions by looking at many instances of the tools in order to derive the general type for the particular instances.)

  • Utilitarian: in one very common case, making information more legible or audible. Here the criteria are generally pragmatic: cost, effectiveness, etc.
  • Documentary: recording or capturing to make a message enduring and accessible. Here the criteria involve fidelity: does the tool capture enough information with a high enough degree of clarity. More is not necessarily better: often, little benefit is gained from additional fidelity.
  • Evidentiary: bearing evidence or information specific to the objects and practices of a discipline. Each discipline decides what facets of information are more and less pertinent: one lung x-ray may be better for one diagnostic purpose, while another is better for examining some other aspect of lung structure or function.
  • Aesthetic: compact, complex, layered information. Here also, each discipline decides which medium and instance carries this information the best–a color slide or jpeg of a certain size, a VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray all vary by the amount and quality of information.

Video can serve exactly the same kinds of functions. Indeed, this is true of instructional technologies in general: they serve some particular function–and if they don’t, they aren’t worth a damn–and these four functions seem fundamental.

What’s more, when students and teachers start using video, they most likely proceed through these functions in pretty much this order. A few examples can convey this idea.

  • Students interview each other or capture video reflections in a diaristic or reflective way. Instead of writing on pieces of paper or an online discussion board, students can use video to capture thoughts and ideas, to discuss. Video is simply capturing, storing and relaying information. Pragmatic criteria apply: the technology simply needs to be reliable and easy enough.
  • Students observe and use video to capture details of a thing, place or process. This could be an ethnographic study of how people use a certain cooking implement. It could be the way a certain animal behaves. It could capture small group dynamics during a discussion. Fidelity is the key criteria: the viewer needs to be able to see and hear well enough, and so students will learn how to place the camera, capture adequate sound, and find lighting that is adequate to the task. There is little sense that a more artful recording is better.
  • Students collect and edit video footage to focus on that evidence which is most relevant to their discipline, topic or argument. This is part of the editing process. Perhaps the original observations are good enough, and now editing selects the most relevant material. What’s being studied and said determines which pieces of video are more interesting.
  • Students combine their evidence in subtle and complex arrangements which condense much meaning into a small space. One way we talk about works of art is to point out how: if any small detail were changed, that would change the whole. When students continue to edit their footage, their message becomes more minutely organized, the impact more powerful, and the message more nuanced. While students may not make “a work of art,” their work becomes more artful–and thus more impactful.

In short, we expect tools to meet our needs. When we are clear about what those needs are, we can better pick the tool. I once worked with a programmer who used the wonderful phrase “gold-plated wrench”–meaning a tool that is a costly work of art but is no more useful for it.

If we help students simply capture footage first, they can move on to capturing good-enough footage, then relevant footage, and finally merging that footage into a complex whole. The last part requires the most sophistication, but by keying our expectations to where students are in the learning process, we help them progress in an order whose logic is dictated by increasing complexity.

--Edward R. O'Neill


  1. Wonderful breakdown that gets past the hype and obfuscation usually surrounding the term "instructional technology." Focusing on the purpose of bringing video into the classroom helps clarify the differences between real pedagogy and the bells and whistles that distract us from that goal.