On my radio

Words like ‘action’, ‘fade’, and ‘sound fx’ aren’t one’s you would usually associate with teaching and learning. But, last Monday, I and a group of colleagues converged on a recording studio in Milton Keynes to record a dramatised version of the lives of three Open University students. To be called This Student Life, this fictional rendition of the challenges facing distance learning students is part of a wider project of student engagement which I am currently leading.
I have written previously about why this type of drama is an appropriate form of teaching, and will not rehearse the same arguments here. Suffice to say that a drama allows for the exploration of issues in an entirely controlled environment, involving students in an element of role play, as they are asked to empathise with characters whose lives should resonate with their own.


There are a number of reasons why a drama might offer a good learning tool. First, it is a relatively safe place to explore issues which are, by their nature, sensitive. This Student Life will tackle dyslexia, plagiarism, student debt as well as all the usual student worries about assignments, marks, attending tutorials, self-esteem etc. Of course, we could have talked to individual students about these issues, but this relies on individuals being prepared to expose themselves. Despite what our media obsessed culture may lead us to believe most people do not want to have their lives laid bare before an audience.
Second, the drama allows us to explore these issues in a single representative student or, in this case, small group of students. Whilst we all know students who seem to be incredibly unlucky, few real people have the incidence in their lives which listeners demand. That is why they are called dramas.
This latter point, however, does raise an issue which was never far from my mind as I developed the script. Whilst the script has to resonate with real students, it also has to be dramatic enough that people will want to continue listening. This creates a tension between the made up World of the drama and the real lives we are trying to portray. A drama is not an ethnographic representation of the lives of real individuals, and I freely admit to using dramatic licence in one or two places.

Like many writers I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame half-assed assumptions.

This quote is from David Simon, the award winning writer of The Wire.
I am heavily invested in This Student Life as writer, director and a supporting actor. As a writer using fiction to explore real issues I can see a connection with David Simon. Admittedly, the connection may not be obvious to everybody. There are not many drug dealers, corrupt cops, journalists, pimps or prostitutes to be found in This Student Life. On the other hand, The Wire does not have much to say about dyslexia, assignment anxiety, or plagiarism!
Artistic considerations are not the only ones as the story develops. It is no use writing a story about three teenagers if the actors who are to play the roles are obviously in their fifties. But, this brings me full circle to the issue outlined by David Simon, how accurate should my portrayal be? Let’s face it if I were to make a TV drama about Oxford University and all the actors were clearly 50+, it would lack credibility.

The average age of an OU student is 31, and whilst the OU points out that 25% of its new undergraduates are under 25, this means that three-quarters are over 25. Given this context, it is not entirely unrealistic to have 3 students aged 32, 40 and 54. Though, I rather suspect that the OU would prefer to have a less representative sample.

In a single evening and a whole day we recorded all 24 episodes with each episode lasting 6-7 minutes. We had little time for multi-takes,or for the actors to inhabit their characters. Within those 6-7 minutes each of the main characters has a developing storyline. In technical parlance this is known as a multi point of view. Writing a 7 minute episode in which the three main strands are around 2 minutes each may sound easy, but it is, at one and the same time, nowhere near long enough and far too much time!
For all sorts of reasons we had to avoid long Shakespearian monologues, especially given that the actors will only see the full script a couple of days before recording and there was no money in the budget for rehearsal time. It is also important to be realistic about how much emotion we can convey. A couple of the actors, including myself, have received no training in how to act. Believe me it is much harder than it looks!
This week we go into what the professionals call post-production. That is where we make the words which we have recorded as spoken by actors come to life, by a process of editing. Bad takes will be abandoned, lines that did not work will be expunged, context will be added by the inclusion of sound effects. The magic will be done and from this the final product, as good as we can make it, will emerge. It is both an exciting and terrifying process. At the end what we will have is a way of engaging our students in a dialogue around the issues raised in this piece of drama. Real issues, but wrapped in a veneer of fiction.



I’m bored (with your lectures)

If you’ve ever sat in a lecture or tried to read an academic article that gave you that “What the… is this about?” moment, then, like me, you might think that education is more than just passing on facts. Even really good lecturing staff sometimes struggle with the material they are presenting. They don’t want to be boring but, let’s face it, some topics just aren’t that exciting.
Now, there are a couple of ways we might think about the problem of boring material. One, quite common approach, is to treat being bored as one of those rituals we have to go through. A sort of initiation rite into the World of Academia. Another approach is to rethink the way we present material.
I recently discovered the term digital storytelling and was excited enough to think that this might be something that not only could I use in my teaching, but that I could encourage others to do the same. Without pausing to over-think this I set about organising a Digital Storytelling event, due to take place next week, which is a 2-day residential event for a small group of Open University tutors.
This event will encourage the tutors to think about using digital images, and especially video in their teaching. In addition, I have a goal to encourage them to increase their digital presence. I am confident that the event will be successful, but I am still struggling with the notion of a digital story as it relates to education.
Digital storytelling began in California in the 1990’s at the Center for Digital Storytelling. Their website is a fantastic starting place if you want to see some American examples of the method. In essence, digital storytelling is a way of capturing a person’s life using images, sound and text in the form of short personal narrative videos. It has proved particularly popular with schoolchildren who have little or no fear of the technology.
The point is that up to now it has tended to concentrate on personal storytelling – ethnography with pictures, if you will. At the same time there are some great examples of the use of screencasting in an educational context. A blog post on the Educause website gives some useful tips and links to videos. But, I’m still not entirely convinced that digital storytelling, screencasting and higher education have become happy bedfellows (and I know that is three in a bed!)
Lectures and chapters in textbooks usually have an internal coherence (I know we can all think of counter examples, but put that to one side). They usually start with an introduction, have a very stodgy middle and then end with a conclusion. Nothing at all wrong with that structure you might say, and in principle I’d agree with you. The problem is that stodgy middle. As anybody over a certain age knows stodgy middles are to be avoided. And, as anybody over a certain age can confirm, that is more easily said than done.
Reducing stodge, he says speaking from experience, is incredibly difficult. But, it can be done. If we start to think of our material as a form of storytelling we both simplify the material and make it more accessible. I tried this approach when I was tasked with making research ethics exciting (you can read about the results in a paper published in the journal Enhanced Learning in the Social Sciences). The point is that using dialogue to explore concepts is nothing new – it can be traced back at least as far as Plato.
What is new is the range of options available to us, mostly web-based, that allow us to bring our stories to fruition. So, if you are an academic who finds it difficult to bring your lectures and seminars to life, then my advice is to treat the material as a story. The best stories, as we all know, have twists and turns and unexpected outcomes. Much like the best social theories. If you are a student ask yourself, or better still ask your lecturers, which you would prefer: a 15 minute video or podcast or an hour’s lecture?

It’s got to be perfect, almost

I’m going to let you into a little secret. For a long while I’ve harboured a secret desire to be a film director. There. I’ve said it. It’s in the open. And, I feel better for having come out of the closet on this.
But, despite my secret ambition, a few things have gotten in the way of realising my dream. If anybody said “lack of talent” shame on you. No, indeed, talent may be an issue, but budget has always preceded that. And, a lack of technical prowess, perhaps doesn’t help either.
So, when I discovered screencasting a couple of years ago, I thought to myself ‘got to give that a go’.
My first screencast, aimed at showing students how to use a course wiki was created using the free Techsmith programme Jing.
I loved Jing, partly because it was free (come on who doesn’t love free stuff), but also because it is so easy to use. Basically, you go to the website, click download, the programme instals on your desktop, you click on the little sun, wait for the countdown (1-2-3 ACTION!) and start talking as you move your mouse around the screen. At the end of your 5 minutes, you save or start again. What could be simpler?
Now, the simplicity makes this really appealing and straight away I could think of lots of ways this technology could be useful. From creating a short introduction to a tutor or a course, to explaining a difficult concept, or to summarising a tutorial for those unable to attend, it seemed to me that I could become a cottage industry. No budget needed, no particular technical prowess required. Just me, my computer and a microphone, and I was set to become the next Steven Spielberg.
But despite making a couple of short videos using Jing, I was quickly frustrated at the length, the lack of editing the programme allowed and the fact that all I could do was talk over the screen. My inner Tarantino demanded more. Which is when I discovered Camtasia Studio, another Techsmith product that was Jing but with bells and whistles. Or, to be more precise, editing facilities. I discovered the joy of panning and zooming, of using transitions, of adding text and images and of importing music and video – George Lucas step aside, there’s a new kid in town!
To be honest editing is a step up from simply capturing the screen, but as I produced more and more short videos, I realised that with a little bit of effort I could get some reasonably good results. The students to whom the videos were shown seemed appreciative, even if some of the Open University tutors I roped in to help were less than enthused.
So why video in education? First, in my view we are still largely wedded to pages of text to get our message across – why? The idea that a 5 minute video can replace a textbook seems to me to be a desirable outcome. Second, the short video is ubiquitous these days. Most young people spend an inordinate amount of time on You Tube (admittedly looking at cats playing the piano etc.), but shouldn’t educators use a technology young people are already very comfortable with? Third, they call for a level of creativity that is sometimes missing in lectures, despite what some lecturers might think. It is a fantastic discipline to condense a complex idea into a short video, and in doing so, makes us think about what are the essential elements of that complex idea. Finally, it is great fun to do. And, to return to the title of this post, it does not have to be perfect.

If you were in my movie

Okay, if you a regular reader of these pages or a follower of my occasional Twitter (@OUSocSciCymru) you’ll know that I have over the past couple of weeks been working on a video production. Now, I should say right at the outset, that the easiest way to get a video made is to pay a professional to do it for you. But, where’s the fun in that? Besides I haven’t got the budget, so embracing the D-I-Y ethic seems the best option.
Besides, how hard can it be to make a video? It’s just a matter of pointing a camera and clicking record, isn’t it? In fact, these days who needs a camera, you can just record some footage on your phone and then edit it in i-Movie or Windows Film Maker, right? Well, yes, but then again, probably no.
What kind of kit you use does depend on what you are trying to achieve. If you are a student trying to use video as part of an assignment, you might well use your phone as a camera. After all, nobody’s going to be overly worried that the footage is a little shaky (adds authenticity, apparently), or that the sound is a bit tinny and difficult to hear. And, for sure, nobody is going to insist every scene is ‘properly lit’, for which read expensively/professionally lit.
But if, like me, you are an academic in an organisation with an almost fetishistic obsession with quality you are going to need to think a little more technically if your mini masterpiece is ever going to see the light of day. Immediately, enthusiastic amateurs are up against that old perception thing. You know, people have already labelled you as one thing, but you are determined to be something else.

20130617-204944.jpg Here’s the camera I use. Not professional, but at the higher end of the prosumer end. It’s a Sony NXR-70E for those of you who care about such things.
A good camera, actually even a bad one, needs good sound. So, if you are on a tight budget ( and who isn’t these days? Thanks Mr Osborne), spending a decent amount on a mic is worth it. But, the thing that really ruins your movie is something over which you have the least control – light. This is especially true, I’ve found, if you are filming outside.
In my opinion, video offers a great resource for educators and students. Making videos, much like writing blogs, makes you think carefully about how to get your message across. In the next few weeks I’m hoping to provide some insight to all the mistakes I’ve been making, so that you won’t have to. But, if you are using video as part of your teaching I really would love you to make contact and swap stories.

A Day In The Life (of an inspired academic)

This time last week I really had no idea what was about to happen. I knew that I was going to attend an event organised by @documentally in Cardiff. I knew it was called multimedia storymaking. I suspected that I might be a little inspired. Honestly, I had no idea.
I also knew that I was committed to a video film shoot in West Wales on Thursday. More of that in a future post.
The event on Monday has been documented on Storify. I think my picture is in there somewhere, not saying which one though! The Storify aspect gave me the idea to produce a Storify on the videos we are making, and which we started shooting on Thursday.
But, before that happened, I had what was something of a Damascan moment (is that the right word?) It occurred to me as I was listening to the brilliant @Documentally, that my online presence was really little more than a Twitter account (@OUSocSciCymru).

For me, and I am primarily an educator, technology is good if it helps in the process of teaching and learning. So, as I wandered through Cardiff on Monday, my main concern was not creating a story there and then, but rather how to use all these apps to increase my ability to teach.
Now, a little confession. I have blogged before. In fact I blogged regularly for almost a year for tutors in Wales. That blog kinda died through inertia. So on Monday I thought why restrict the blog to a few people? Why not blog to the World?
And, with that thought and no more than a half hour spent, Thinking Socially was born.
My conclusions are: 1. Blogs are easy to set up 2. They are, relatively, easy to write, and 3. Why are they not more common amongst academics? After all, most (all?) academics have plenty to say, why not do so in the risk free environment of a blog?