Every picture tells a story

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words in a succession of moving pictures? Or, to put that another way, can video ever hope to replace the written word in the affections of educationalists?

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I’ve been obsessed with this question since the thought first occurred to me that most academic literature was, almost by definition, as dry as the bar at a tea-totallers birthday party. I’ve asked the question a few times in various fora, why should education, particularly higher education, be boring? What is the relationship between being lulled into a catatonic state by the poorly elucidated thoughts of an, often self-appointed, expert and learning something useful?
I’ve heard great lectures, and read some very well written academic writing over the years, but in all honesty these tend to be memorable precisely because they are so rare. So, to quote Lenin, what is to be done? (Lenin’s famous pamphlet written for the Bolsheviks in 1902, stole the title from the novel of the same name by Nikolai Chernechevsky published in 1896. I like to imagine that Lenin too had realised that there was something in the novelists approach that was appropriate for more serious matter. More likely, he just liked the title!)
Last week I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days in Mid Wales where we had brought together a group of Open University tutors with some ‘experts’ in multimedia. The idea behind the event was to think about how we communicate with our students. The Open University is renowned for it’s innovative approach to learning, but this should not be read as everybody in the organisation straining at the leash to experiment in their teaching. Most of our teaching, even at its best, remains fairly conservative in its approach, even if looking very radical from the outside looking in.
The tutors who descended on Llandrindod Wells, Metropole Hotel last week had all had some experience of online tutoring and had used screencasting in their teaching. What we challenged them to do was take their experiences to a new level.
First, we wanted them to think about education as an opportunity to tell a story. That is, that all interactions between tutors and students are, essentially, an opportunity to tell a story. The story may be based in fact but it still needs a beginning, middle and end. It has characters, a storyline and a conclusion. Second, we wanted them to think about what technology might help with this. In particular, we wanted to improve the quality of our videos by thinking about some of the technical aspects of film-making. It is not difficult to make a video, anybody can point a camera, but getting good well-lit shots where you can hear what people are saying, is a skill.
The participants jumped in with both feet. At the end all six delegates had produced a short film which they had edited. We hope that the experiences they took away from the two days will remain. That these tutors when next thinking about a tutorial will not ask the question ‘what do my students need to know?’; but, rather pose a different type of question ‘what type of story do I want my students to be involved in?’ For, as much as storytelling is an art that teachers can use, involving students in the creation of those stories takes the whole thing to a new level of creative collaboration. Now, that is a story worth telling!

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