Class Act: Is DIY the Way to Go for Educational Institutions?

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This article appears in the June/July issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.

Fred and Sally do desktop support for the school of arts and sciences at a small state university. Their boss, the dean, is hot to get the school’s top faculty all over YouTube and iTunes U, so she gives Fred and Sally a new MacBook and $2,500 for a camcorder and tells them to get something online by the end of the semester. Meanwhile, Fred and Sally have a virus outbreak in the English department, 20 new workstations in chemistry, and dozens of other users to support.

What are Fred and Sally to do? Playing with new camcorders is probably more fun than trying to convince the English department secretary that some nice fellow in Nigeria really isn’t going to wire him several thousand dollars. And while they are eager to learn these new skills, neither of them has much experience.

Fred and Sally aren’t real people, but this is a situation I’ve heard about often. With many state budgets suffering at the hands of a slow economy, school, college, and university budgets are also feeling the effects. At the same time, educational institutions are increasingly eager to take advantage of online media, both to enhance instruction and to stay competitive with institutions that are getting good press from their internet videos.

As a result, I’m seeing more schools going for a do-it-yourself approach, buying equipment and urging willing staff and faculty to learn media production. Thoughtfully executed, this method can be economical for the institution and a positive experience for the folks willing to give it a shot. But too often, what I see is a small budget thrown at an already busy staff with a vague mandate to get some video online soon.

When I see these situations, I feel like asking: If the school needed new desks, would you give the administrative staff some wood, saws, and hammers and tell them to get on it? If there were a shortage of chemistry teachers, would you hand test tubes, chemicals, and textbooks to the history faculty and ask them to be ready for the next semester?

I’m not saying that the administrative staff can’t acquire good carpentry chops nor that history teachers can’t get certified to teach chemistry. Rather, I want to point out that we commonly accept that these are skills and knowledge that require some time and practice to learn. Media production is no different.

In past columns, I have advocated the value of educational media professionals to the academy. Yet, I’ve also argued that basic production training should be widely available to students and faculty. These contentions are not incompatible. In fact, many professional producers got their start because they had the opportunity to learn video while serving as faculty or staff in other positions.

What’s great about digital media is that many of the tools have been designed with simplicity in mind. Veteran videographers and editors may scoff, but autofocus, automatic exposure, and iMovie really do help create better videos, in part because they free up beginners to concentrate on content rather than technical details.

Pacing, visual composition, and a good script contribute as much to the product as proper exposure and clear sound. A camcorder won’t write foreign-language dialogue, and iMovie doesn’t know a good take from a bad one. Good tools alone do not create good video.

Learning these basic elements of production is about both instruction and practice. Just like salaries and equipment, they need to be included in the budget. Fred might learn best at a workshop, while Sally might be a self-learner. In either case, they are going to need time and other resources to get up to speed.

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