Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Seven Tips for Teaching Video

If you think today’s college students are just a bunch of self-absorbed Twitter-heads devoted solely to their Facebook pages, I’ve got some videos for you to watch.

We just viewed my students’ final video projects here at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Although we’ve taught video in the past as part of our visual-communications courses, this is the first time we’ve offered a standalone video course, so I had no idea what to expect.

The first three course assignments were group projects. For the first assignment, the students had to create a short instructional video, which would teach the viewer how to perform a simple task, such as baking cookies — without audio or any postproduction editing. The second assignment — an interview — added audio and editing.

For the third assignment, the students produced a 60-second public-service announcement — with voice-over narration — for a socially relevant cause, such as environmental protection.

Final Project: A Success Story

We decided to make the final project a solo effort, in order to give the students an opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of all the skills required to conceive, shoot, and edit a five-to-seven minute video. The first step was to come up with an idea and have it approved by me.

For some students, this was a straightforward process — they understood that, in addition to a compelling story, a successful video needs great visuals and ear-catching audio. For other students, the approval process involved a lot of discussion — What’s the most interesting aspect of the story? Who will tell the story? What will we see? What will we hear? How will the video grab and hold the viewer’s attention?

What surprised and pleased me was the seriousness of the topics my students tackled. Here are some examples: water quality in South Carolina; a disabled athlete hoping to compete in the Paralympics; a woman running a marathon to raise money for a cancer patient; a family raising an autistic child; an African American cultural festival; how a local art museum is coping with the recession; plans for a new college of pharmacy. Clearly, these students appreciated the opportunity to deal with weighty issues.

We also got to see and hear from ordinary people doing interesting things: an artist who works with clay; a family that runs a popular local restaurant; members of an African American sorority; a newspaper photographer on assignment; a college student and her roommate moving into a new apartment; members of a Baha’i faith community; servers at a local pub; students who started a nonprofit group to aid the needy. Each project had its strengths and weaknesses, but all were worthwhile efforts.

Seven Tips for Teaching Video

Here, then, are seven tips for teaching video, based on what I learned from my students this semester. Most of these are things I actually did, but some are things I wish I’d done — and will do the next time I teach the course.

1. Brainstorming pays off. Spend time with your students explaining the process of brainstorming — how to come up with lots of ideas without being judgmental, and then how to rank those ideas based on feasibility and effectiveness. Learning this process early in the semester will help students generate great ideas for both group and individual projects.

2. Get it in writing. Require your students to submit written concepts for all projects. If appropriate, require them to submit written scripts and/or shot lists. Introduce them to Celtx, a free downloadable program that automates many of the tasks involved with preproduction, including script writing and storyboarding.

3. Leave plenty of time. If you are used to teaching still photography, assume that teaching video will require at least double the amount of time per unit of information — twice the teaching time, twice the lab time, twice the shooting and editing time. This means that you will probably be assigning fewer projects with more lead time. You will also spend more time going over equipment, techniques, and software. And you will need more one-on-one time with students in the editing lab.

4. Don’t tell, show. The same principle of good storytelling applies to teaching—it is much more effective to show students what you mean than to tell them. Plan on watching and discussing lots of examples of good and not-so-good video and audio, drawn from a variety of sources. Fortunately, resources such as KobreGuide make it easy to access the best video and multimedia on the Web. But don’t neglect films and documentaries—I showed the famous opening sequence of “Touch of Evil” by Orson Wells twice: once at the beginning of the semester when we learned about editing in camera, and again when we discussed audio and the layering of sounds.

5. The devil is in the details. If you are teaching Final Cut Pro, make sure your students understand the importance of file naming and file organization. Despite being “digital natives,” students often either don’t know — or for some reason neglect — good computing practices. Although this may be OK when working with a program such as Microsoft Word, it will come back to bite them when working with Final Cut Pro. Nothing can ruin an editing session faster than being unable to find the necessary media files, or having multiple clips, each named “untitled.”

6. Small doses are easier to swallow. When teaching Photoshop, I make it a practice to demonstrate only one or two tools or techniques per class session. Students then get the chance to try out what they’ve learned. I followed the same practice when teaching my students Final Cut Pro. The software is intimidating enough—so I decided early on to concentrate on the essentials. What’s great about students is that they end up figuring out a lot on their own and by working in groups. No need to bombard them with too much information.

7. Make sure the technology works (and have a backup plan if it doesn’t). If you are showing videos or demonstrating equipment, make sure everything runs smoothly, and know ahead of time what you will do if it doesn’t. We all have sat through professional presentations where gremlins invaded the audiovisual system, rendering it useless. It’s amazing how fast patience and sympathy evaporate. Assume your students feel the same way. Teaching video requires demonstrating cameras, different types of audio-recording equipment, and software. You are a often called upon to be a techno-wizard — but what if the rabbit refuses to come out of the hat?

All in all, it was a great semester. I was privileged to be able to teach our new video course, and I was rewarded by all the hard work my students expended and the successes they achieved. Please join the conversation by sharing your experiences teaching video — my guess is that video will play an increasingly important role in the education of our students.

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