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It's Elementary: Schools Should Teach Basic Video Literacy

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For hundreds of years, the written word has been the primary currency of education. It is the medium through which knowledge is recorded for the ages, and in which students are expected to demonstrate their learning. With few exceptions, success at school and at work requires fluency with the written word.

It’s no surprise then that a great deal of our educational experience is focused on reading and writing. Although we take classes specifically focused on this area, nearly every other discipline contributes to our development as writers, as we write lab reports in biology or take written driver’s exams.

Now, video is nipping at the heels of text, nudging in beside the written word in classrooms and training centers. Students, trainees, employees, and entrepreneurs are not just watching, but making video.

Most of us have a pretty good sense of what it means to be literate with the written word. But what does it mean to be literate with the moving picture?

One place to look is the discipline of media literacy, which has been around for more than 30 years. It was developed in response to a media-saturated society, in order to help young people better understand and discern the messages they receive. While that education is important, that’s not exactly what I’m getting at.

My question is pragmatic: What skills and knowledge do today’s students need in order to excel in life and work?

This inquiry is vital not just for elementary or high school students, but for anyone engaged in teaching and learning. It applies to someone at a multinational company creating screencast presentations for team members on the other coast, and to the person on a shop floor assisting with a demonstration video to introduce a new workflow. These are presentations that even a decade ago would have been done in person, or recorded only in print. The greater efficiency that video adds comes with the need to do it well, or at least well enough.

Even though most corporate managers aren’t in the business of teaching grammar and style, you can bet that a poorly written report filled with misspellings or odd phrasing will be returned to the author, sometimes with notes and corrections. In the same way, bosses of all stripes will become less tolerant of bad video.

Until recently, a barrier to more widespread training in video skills was the perception that good equipment was too expensive and the discipline was too complex to master. I hope that perception is fading now that every smartphone houses a sophisticated and easy-to-use video camera.

The critical step is to stop seeing video making as just a technical challenge. Rather, training should focus on what you shoot, and how you use video to communicate. Sure, there are some very basic equipment techniques that are useful for making better video, but they’re truly no more complicated than improving one’s penmanship. The focus needs to be on organization, composing what you put in the frame, and storytelling.

I’m not talking about preparing students to be the next Orson Welles any more than the typical freshman English course is churning out dozens of Ernest Hemingways or Toni Morrisons. Yet, at every stage of education we can help students express themselves in a medium that is becoming an essential part of everyday communication.

We are entering the age when students and employees will be judged on how well they edit their writing as well as their video. Let’s figure out how to prepare them.

This article appears in the November/December 2014 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "It’s Time to Teach Video Literacy."

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