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?

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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.