SITES, CAMERA, ACTION!: FIVE REASONS FOR MULTIMEDIA ASSIGNMENTS IN THE WEB-ENHANCED CLASSROOM
What is Multimedia?
For the purposes of this presentation, I'm defining multimedia as non-print media. This definition includes images, audio clips, video clips, and animations done with programs such as Flash. Students might take pictures, they might record sounds, take movies, put together slideshows, or otherwise synchronize images and text, or images and sound. The emphasis here is on non-written "text," to which writing might later be added. My central tenet is that the production of multimedia involves understanding and using concepts that are not necessary for the production of print, but that are absolutely essential for being a literate person in a digital age.
The two fundamental concepts invoked by multimedia are layers and timelines. Layers allow for the idea that things can happen simultaneously; timelines allow for the idea that simultaneous things can be choreographed. Both these concepts are found on the web in many different contexts, not just in multimedia. These concepts are either absent or very de-emphasized in traditional, print-based written communication, and therefore are not present in traditional classroom assignments.
Layers, which appear in still image programs such as Photoshop, and also in motion-oriented software such as Flash and video editing packages, allow for things to be superimposed on other things. In their simplest incarnation, layers allow for words to be put over a picture; for example, in video editing, layers allow a soundtrack to be put over a video track.
Working with layers is important for students because it allows them to learn to "multitask" in order to produce something. The concept of composing traditional written text is very linear; you make one point, and then you make another. You can count on having the reader's complete focus as you make each point. Hypertext allows readers to sequence points in different and unexpected ways - but it is still digested one thought at a time. However, a simple layered image such as a picture with a caption allows for all sorts of coordination. The caption might support the image, or it might belie it. Irony can be achieved by the juxtaposition of unexpected elements.
Additionally, from a production standpoint, the notion that there is more depth than you may see to what is viewable on the screen, and that different layers can be manipulated without changing everything crops up in many different applications. This is the same concept that allows cascading style sheets to separate out a text and its presentation; changing one element in a stylesheet might, for example, change all headings from bold to italic, but it doesn't change the text itself. Similarly, changing the keywords for items in a database changes the way the items come up during searches, but it does not change the items themselves. In the print world, critical thinking involved the ability to "take apart" a written argument to see how and why the author used particular evidence, or sequenced his or her points in a particular way. In the digital world, critical thinking involves understanding what lies beneath the surface of what you see - or at least knowing that more is there. What you see isn't always what you get, and learning to manipulate layers allows students to develop ways to conceptualize information that take into account that the presentation of something is really only the surface of it.
Timelines are fundamental for video editing and also for animation programs. Asking students to think about how to structure images in time is very different than asking them to structure a written argument for a few reasons. First, written texts don't really involve the concept of duration; all readers go through a text at their own pace, for one thing, and for another, they can skip around more easily than it is possible to skip around in a video or audio clip. When people create multimedia involving timelines, they not only have to think of sequence, they have to consider duration, and they often have to synchronize several different "events" with each other. In a visuals + audio slideshow, at what point in the audio should the slide change? In a film clip, at what point should the action change? How long is "long enough to make a point" without being boring or redundant?
In animation programs, timelines and layers are used together to coordinate motion - to scroll text across the screen, or to make something happen when a button is clicked.
Timelines, then allow for the same kind of "simultaneity" that is found with layers, but they also impose a sequence that is far more rigid than the sequence of traditional print products.
Why should I include multimedia assignments?
Students are avid consumers of multimedia. But it is also important that they have opportunities to create multimedia in a critical, reflective environment. Many theorists now agree that learning to understand and manipulate multimedia is a literacy skill, and thus is analogous to other literacy skills - namely, reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
We have a fairly good understanding of how people acquire literacy skills.
For these reasons, it is not sufficient for instructors simply to engage students in evaluating others' production of multimedia, as is done in film courses, say, or in communications courses where students learn about advertising. Students need the opportunity to produce multimedia themselves in order to communicate a particular message, just as young children learning to talk need to try talking themselves. Fortunately, providing these opportunities isn't too difficult.
In an already-crowded syllabus, how can I include multimedia?
There's no doubt that everyone feels pressured to cover specified material, and the introduction of multimedia elements might at first seem like it's going to take a lot of time. Here are some hints to help you make the assignments manageable and still pedagogically useful.
Make sure that the method you choose is the easiest for you to manage, and still achieve your pedagogical aims. Investigate your options before you give the assignment.
Documenting Change over Time
There are many instances where it might be significant for students to document change over time. The chief advantage of using multimedia in this circumstance is that it focuses students' attention on specific visual aspects of the change. Creating a multimedia record also allows students to go back and re-observe earlier images in light of the later ones, and it enables students to compare their observations with others', leaving open the possibility that their peers will notice changes that they did not see.
Below is a small sampling of assignments where change matters.
In an astronomy class, students were asked to photograph the setting sun from the same location and at the same time every day for a period of two weeks. In the fall, students had a pictorial record showing that the sun was not only lower in the sky on each subsequent day, but they could see that the sun was also moving slightly farther south on each day.
In a sociology class, students were asked to visit a public location (a mall, the student union, a ski hill) at different times on the same day, and to photograph a common area. They then wrote about the differences in the groups of people who frequent those areas at different times during the day, and to speculate about why those particular times appealed to those particular groups.
Particularly in a distance education setting, it is very helpful to ask students to "illustrate" ideas that are covered in class. Such illustrations serve several purposes: They provide everyone in the class with a wide range of examples of a particular idea, and they allow the instructor to see how well students have grasped the ideas or concepts being presented. Additionally, the ability to share images of their local surroundings enables students to develop a sense of presence, and to learn more about their classmates.
Here are specific assignments where global concepts are illustrated locally.
Telling a Story
In this era of ubiquitous television and movies, stories may seem like the most familiar, intuitive use of video or images in the classroom. If we extend the notion of "story" to include genres like "persuasive documentary," the field becomes wide open indeed.
Yet stories are not so easy to construct using videos or images. Students will definitely learn to use storyboards - to think about the sequence of images they will use. They will also need to learn to match their visuals with an audio track or a narrative voiceover, in many cases. Stories take a long time to construct, and, unlike most of the other suggestions on this site, do not lend themselves to assignments early in the semester, or to short assignments. The creation of stories will take about a month, in most cases. It is very important to set a time limit for these stories - even a short video or slideshow (1-5 minutes) can take a long time to produce.
Here's a simple story about walking the dogs. The video was taken with a still camera - a Panasonic Lumix - and then edited with Adobe Premiere.
Here are sample storytelling assignments:
Explaining a Concept
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then surely there must be a thousand situations where a picture would be better than words. Asking students to produce images in those situations is a way to enhance their multimedia literacy.
On the literal level, students can produce "how-to" videos or series' of pictures. Increasingly, people are receiving videos that show them how to do things. For example, Volkswagen owners can visit this web site (click on "view installation instructions") to see how to install a roof rack onto their new car. Screen capture programs can be used to make instructional videos such as the ones on this page, which illustrate the use of Sitemaker, a web site creation product developed at the University of Michigan.
More theoretically, students can be asked to produce images or collections of images that illustrate abstract concepts, such as "fairness" or "friendship" or "truth."
Here are some specific assignment suggestions.
Particularly in a distance education classroom, multimedia can be used to help students and instructors create a sense of "presence" to appear to each other as more than just words on the screen. Paradoxically, in a face-to-face or hybrid classroom, multimedia can be used to allow people to reveal parts of themselves that would not ordinarily surface in a typical classroom.
Assignments that help to create a sense of presence include the following:
Halliday, M. A. K. Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language. London: Elsevier North-Holland, 1975. Edward Arnold, 1981
Kaye, Kenneth. 1982. The Mental and Social Life of Babies: How Parents Make Persons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Polanyi, Livia. 1979. "So What's the Point?" Semiotica 25: 3/4, 207-241.
Vipond, Douglas, and Russell A. Hunt. 1984. "Point-Driven Understanding: Pragmatic and Cognitive Dimensions of Literary Reading." Poetics 13 261-277.
Vygotsky, L. S. 1986. Thought and Language. Translation newly edited and revised by Alex Kozulin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
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