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Class Act: The Future of Educational Video?

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This "Class Act" column originally appeared in the October/November issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "The Blair Witch Podcast?" Click here for your free subscription.

You’re watching an online video. The scene is dimly lit. There’s just a single harsh light on our subject’s face in extreme close-up. The sound, while understandable, is full of popped Ps and distorted peaks.

Is this a sequel to the Blair Witch Project, or a video podcast for Political Science 101? Or is this the future of educational video?

The do-it-yourself approach to video has taken the internet by storm, and more instructors and students are taking up the call to use digital media to enhance learning. As both a media producer and educator I think this is a great trend. Yet, like a weary English teacher at a slam poetry competition, I can’t help but think that the quality could be a lot better with some attention to the basics.

Podcasting is about three years old, and it’s still a hot item in the academy. Go to any educational technology conference and you’ll be hard pressed to avoid a session that doesn’t tout podcasting as the best thing since the slide rule.

About eighteen months ago I went to one of these conferences and sat through the most excruciating sixty minutes of my professional life. I endured some of the most boring, repetitive, and poorly produced audio and video being held up as exemplars of educational media. Even more excruciating was listening to misguided faculty, with bounding enthusiasm and pride, tell us how their podcasts were helping them get through to their students, who were otherwise glued to their iPods.

I wanted to crawl out of my skin.

It’s a conundrum, really. I think the democratization of media-making tools is a powerful force for education. And yet I know that quality is a real value. Focused, well-exposed video is easier to watch, and clear, undistorted audio is much easier to understand. Where is this question of quality in the "user-generated media" revolution?

Lest you think I’m just an old media curmudgeon, I’ll relate an experience from another conference. I was participating in a breakout group on educational video. We were discussing the topic of students making videos for class assignments.

I ended up debating an experienced photojournalism professor who strongly argued that students shouldn’t be producing videos for class. Quality was the crux of his argument: It takes at least three semesters to learn the basics of good production skills. He asked, are we going to require all students to take three semesters of video production so they pass Biology?

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