• December 20, 2014

Across More Classes, Videos Make the Grade

In some science and writing courses, final papers are giving way to multimedia

Across More Classes, Videos Make the Grade 1

David Zentz for The Chronicle

Susan Metros, associate vice provost at Southern Cal: Multi­media "means you have to be able to actually make" graphics and images.

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close Across More Classes, Videos Make the Grade 1

David Zentz for The Chronicle

Susan Metros, associate vice provost at Southern Cal: Multi­media "means you have to be able to actually make" graphics and images.

Film students aren't the only ones producing videos for homework these days. Professors teaching courses in writing, geology, forensics, sociology, anthropology, foreign languages, and many other disciplines now assign video projects, pushing students to make arguments formatted for the YouTube age.

So far the trend exists mainly among tech-savvy professors, though in some cases students asked to write traditional papers are lobbying to turn in video essays instead.

Now a few colleges and universities are considering adding video-making to a list of core skills required for graduation. Recording may take its place among the age-old R's of education: reading, writing, and 'rithmatic.

I found that the University of Southern California is one institution pondering camera-happy measures.

"We want all of our students that graduate from USC to have a signature experience that includes multimedia," says Susan E. Metros, associate vice provost and associate CIO for technology-enhanced learning. The goal, she argues, is to prepare students for today's highly visual communication landscape, and to push them to think more critically about the videos they consume.

However, Ms. Metros also told me that the university has yet to figure out exactly how to do this. "We want it to be campuswide, and we want it to be something that is part of the curriculum, but we don't know how yet." Among the options being discussed: Adding a required course in which students make digital videos; or asking all undergraduates to complete a capstone multimedia project.

"It used to be that 'multimedia literacy' meant that you just needed to be able to understand graphics or images," Ms. Metros said. "Now there's a sea change, and it means you have to be able to actually make them."

Tools to produce videos now travel in almost every student's backpack. More than 89 percent of students at four-year colleges own laptops, according to the latest data from Student Monitor, and today most laptops come equipped with a built-in Web camera and easy-to-use video-editing software. And the latest smartphones feature cameras and video-editing software as well. About once a month, my sister-in-law e-mails me videos from her iPhone 4 of my niece and nephew goofing around.

"The creation of video and the publishing of video is getting to the point where it's almost as easy as creating a written assignment," says Kyle D. Bowen, Purdue University's director of informatics. And he's trying to make it even easier: He recently helped design an iPhone app to let students submit video assignments to their professors.

Professors who have assigned videos say that students are enthusiastic—but that though they may fancy themselves young Steven Spielbergs, they often turn in schlocky, B-movie fare. And even professors are still trying to figure out what makes a good academic argument in video form.

Movies About Issues

Michael Fosmire, associate professor of library science at Purdue University, recently started assigning video homework for a survey course he helps teach called "Great Issues in Science and Society," a required course for science majors.

The 80 students in the class divide up in groups of four to write a white paper proposing policy on a scientific issue, such as supporting wind energy. Then they must produce a "persuasive yet accurate" short video to build momentum for their policy, says Mr. Fosmire.

The professor says he has been surprised by how much time and energy the students invest in the videos, which have included mock newscasts and send-ups of popular sitcoms.

Several other courses at Purdue ask students to shoot and edit video as well, including a forensics course and—this one is a natural—a course on American Sign Language. A distance-education course in public speaking requires students to not only film themselves giving a talk, but to recruit a small audience to watch them. As Mr. Bowen put it, "You can't do public speaking if you're not speaking publicly."

There are some drawbacks, though. Many professors do not feel comfortable making videos, much less grading student footage. And students often focus on adding glitzy effects rather than doing research and crafting an argument, says Elizabeth Losh, director of academic programs for the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California at San Diego, who has assigned videos for several years in her media-studies courses.

Many students think "all they need is something that's got some visual sizzle, and they don't need to address the kinds of research objectives that you might want them to address," she says.

At USC, officials have set up a center where non-film majors can go to get help crafting videos for classes. It's called the Institute for Multimedia Literacy. Among recent projects: a geology class that asked students to make short documentaries instead of writing term papers.

Visual Competency

To Holly Willis, director of academic programs for the center, video is only one aspect of what she considers multimedia literacy, which can also include other forms of digital communication, including audio and interactive presentations. "For us, it's really being able to communicate effectively in a networked culture," she says.

Some colleges, including the University of Cincinnati, have revised their statements of "general education core competencies" to include "oral and visual communication" in addition to writing skills. Video assignments are one way to achieve that goal.

Librarians are also stepping in to define what they call "visual literacy." The Association of College and Research Libraries recently drafted visual-literacy standards, the first time the group has issued such guidelines. They include a call to encourage students to "design and create meaningful images and visual media."

Even when colleges aren't asking for videos, students are diving in on their own. One self-taught student video blogger from Villanova University, for instance, has scored 50 million views of her playful videos on Japanese culture. Perhaps professors can help make those homemade videos better.

College 2.0 covers how new technologies are changing colleges.

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