As my subtitle suggests, I propose three sections to this seminar that broadly address three questions:
1. Why use digital video?
2. What can you do with digital video?
3. How do you do digital video?
The first section offers various justifications for using digital video in the history classroom. It attempts a justification beyond the undoubted motivational appeal of the medium, to something more essential to the teaching of history itself. The second section suggests some practical examples of the various ways digital video might be used in the history classroom. And in the final section I offer a five-minute crash course in how to edit digital video, open to anyone with post-98 Windows and a broadband Internet connection (or patience).
Part 1: Why use digital video in the history classroom?
Because you can and because you should.
Because you can.
Until a few years ago, unless you had a dedicated multi-thousand pound media studies lab, film making with students was pretty much impossible. Even then teachers were restricted to working with small groups of (generally) older students and the level of expertise required meant that those involved tended to be media studies specialists. Now as a result of a number of technical developments, any teacher of any subject can take their class of 30 students of any age, into a computer lab and make movies.
The four technical developments are worth highlighting because when put together, you can begin to realise how very recent the possibilities associated with digital video actually are.
Firstly, all Windows PCs since Me have had video editing software included as part of the software package. Before this you either had to have a suite of iMacs or an expensive site license for a specialist digital video-editing package. Since last year Microsoft have improved their software beyond recognition, so that with MovieMaker 2 you can do pretty much all that commercial DV software like Pinnacle can do. Even more importantly, the software is very easy to use. I use it with all my students (11-18 years old) and we also use it with much younger children in our Primary section. After a five-minute introduction to the basics, students can be left to work the rest out for themselves. (see Part Three of this seminar) Of all the software I have used with students over the last five years, MovieMaker is not only the easiest to get to grips with, but it is also the one I have learnt about most from the students themselves.
Secondly, digital video has become widely available and easy to make. A quick search on the internet for .mpeg or .ram files exactly how available they are. But more importantly, the cost of digital cameras that also shoot video has come down significantly in the last two years. Five years ago I was fortunate enough to be able to work in class with a handful of Sony Mavicas, each retailing at about £700-800.
We considered this so novel at the time, we even made a film about it. (worth viewing if you've ever wondered what a laptop classroom looks like)
Now those same cameras are about a quarter of the price and there are much cheaper ones that can do the job just as well. You might be surprised at how many of your students own a digital (video) camera or have webcam or mobile phone that also does digital video. Even if you have an old analogue camcorder, £50 worth of video capture card can turn it all digital. See my discussion with Chris Higgins earlier this term for practical advice on this.
Thirdly, although digital video files are very big, the average PC now has the hard drive and processor necessary to cope with them. In addition portable storage devices (USB memory sticks etc.) now allow us to move big files between computers very easily. Moving DV files between students in lessons or between class and home would otherwise be very difficult.
Finally, broadband Internet connection not only allows us to download DV files with relative ease, it also allows us through our websites to share our student’s films with the wider Internet community. If you do make films with students, it helps motivate if they know that their work will be viewed beyond the classroom.
Because you should
Now that it is possible to work with digital video in the history classroom, it is also important to realise that there are also lots of good reasons why you should. The most obvious is motivational; students (including boys) enjoy working with it. The medium is relevant and ‘real world’ for students and this is reflected in the time and effort they put into the work. (see BECTa research on this) Video projects also lend themselves naturally to meaningful group work assignments and genuine cross-curricular learning. Depending on the project you might need students to become directors, editors, artists, musicians, cameramen, researchers, scriptwriters, actors, etc. Digital video therefore opens up a whole range of new learning possibilities to suit a range of different learning styles. This was in fact the first significant revelation for me when I started using a digital video camera in lessons. Before it was possible for students to use the technology themselves, I was using the camera to enhance the possibilities for non-traditional learning styles. For example, I overcame my reluctance to use ephemeral, performance based role-plays in class, as soon as digital video allowed me to overcome the fact that role-play was ephemeral. Everyone prepares more seriously for a role-play if a permanent record is to be kept and ‘broadcast’ via our website to the rest of the world.
However, the most important reason why students should work with digital video is that by doing so they are learning to become critical users of the most influential medium in the world. As history teachers we like to justify our existence by claiming to provide our students with the tools to decode and debunk both the ‘source’ traces of the past and the interpretative knowledge claims of historians. But in general, school history, with its emphasis on imparting the (producer) skills of the professional historian, (why do we do this?) neglects to equip students with all the skills they require as consumers of history. I remember reading some serious educational research, which suggested that most people’s historical consciousness is generated by television and cinema and has little to do with the ‘taught’ history of the school curriculum. In brief, the ‘document’ work and close examination of the (dominantly) written sources which characterises history lessons throughout the world, does little to prepare students to be critical users of the medium that is most likely to shape their understanding of the past.
I have long been convinced of the need to spend time critically analysing film with history students as we would with any other types of sources. Film, documentary or otherwise, is too often treated uncritically, as a stimulus source of content knowledge; often to lighten the load before teachers return to serious ‘academic’ study. By far the best way to get students to engage critically with film is to first put them behind a camera and then in front of a screen of video editing software. As a consequence of making films, students become sensitised to the various techniques employed by the filmmaker: camera angle and distance, lighting, focus, music, narrative technique, editing etc. Consequently, they begin to understand how they are manipulated; they begin to see through the magic.
Let me give one example here to illustrate the point. How students treat a camera is symptomatic of their knowledge of filmmaking. To begin with the camera is treated as a passive receiver; set-up at distance to cover the ‘scene’, students spend their time working on the script, casting, learning lines, acting, the sets and props, i.e. what the students ‘know’ about film. But as soon as they begin to work with the film at the editing stage, they begin to realise how the camera can be used in different ways to create different effects and meaning. This is why their third or fourth film shoot is so different to their first. In the first shoot, the cameraman is away from the action out on his own, by the last he is crowded out as everyone competes to see what the camera sees. Show a group of students who have been through this filmmaking process the opening scenes of Private Ryan and they will explain to you why camera use is more important than special effects, in creating the empathetic sense of involvement that Spielberg so brilliantly achieves...
Edited by Richard Jones-Nerzic, 11 February 2008 - 10:47 PM.