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6 Tips for Successful Mobile Video Assignments in the Classroom

[This is a guest post by Ronald A Yaros, assistant professor of multimedia and mobile journalism in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. You can find out more at his homepage or on LinkedIn. Follow him on Twitter at @ryaros]

YouTube logged one trillion viewers in 2011 or about 140 views for every person on the planet. On average, 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. That’s why it’s no surprise that instructors in many different disciplines are looking for ways to integrate mobile video into their courses. Video offers opportunities to engage students with assignments that synthesize research, communication skills and writing.

However, in the three years I’ve been teaching mobile video in a course titled “Information 3.0,” even those students who initially say they are very familiar with video later admit that they learned a lot from repeated practice and application of video production skills. In other words, shooting and uploading video to YouTube alone does not a videographer make, at least not in my class of sixty undergraduates who come from any major on campus.

Video interviews are just one of several multimedia elements that my students produce and assemble on their blogs all semester. Students also use a custom course app to seek, select, and share course-related content. The final multimedia project in the course includes video clips of experts in each student’s major or field of interest. Of course, there are many ways to use video in your course, including the collection of field data, recording observations, and on the street interviews. If you’re considering video for your course, here are a few tips from my recent presentation at Journalism Interactive 2013, hosted by the University of Florida.

  1. Good video doesn’t always mean good audio. While it’s easy for a student to see what their mobile camera “sees,” it’s impossible to hear what their mobile microphone is hearing without wearing headphones connected to their device. In our first in-class interview practice, students almost always hold their devices too far from the interviewee. Yes, it can be awkward holding a phone near someone’s face, but unless you have a handheld microphone that plugs into the phone, the device should always be within arms length of the interviewee’s mouth for good audio. The common “camera position” of holding the phone near your face doesn’t work for video interviews. it’s always more important that the device be closer to the interviewee than it’s to the interviewer. The MobileActive web site offers more tips for good mobile audio.
  2. Brevity is the soul of wit. Tell students to keep their interview questions focused and video clips as short as possible. With some practice, it’s relatively easy to stop and start the recording instead of capturing an entire 15 to 20 minute interview. (That also results in a huge video file.) With the right mobile app, each clip can be automatically uploaded to the cloud while the interviewee starts the next question and recording. In general, students should have only three or four good questions to ask.  If the interviewee rambles for several minutes, stop then start recording again asking the interviewee to summarize in a minute or less what they just said. This also produces a more focused and shorter clip for online viewers to watch later.
  3. Steady as she goes! Despite the temptation to move the mobile device around so we can see “everything,” students should NOT move their device while recording. In fact, trying to hold a small device as steady as possible is challenging. If you’re interviewing someone at their desk, try using something like a stack of books as a tripod. It makes for a more professional steady look.
  4. Never interview someone seated in front of a window (without at least closing the blinds). As with any good photography, the primary light source should always be behind you. Many mobile cameras automatically adjust their brightness levels to the available light, which means pointing a window or bright lamp will drastically reduce the brightness of the interviewee.
  5. Students should be prepared with “plan B” in case the interviewee unexpectedly decides at the last minute that he or she isn’t comfortable being videotaped. When that happens, my students can still collect audio only and a photograph (assuming that’s permitted). The free app Audioboo, for example, records the audio then asks if you wish to take a photo, which is uploaded to the cloud with the audio.
  6. Finally, practice, practice, practice! Asking questions to a peer in class or a roommate isn’t the same as interviewing a busy professor or scientist in their office. I start my video training with “pass/fail rehearsal” assignments so students can assess each other’s videos and improve their techniques BEFORE the important graded assignments.

In terms of apps, although smartphones have built in video tools, there are more sophisticated apps for those willing to spend a few bucks in iTunes. As examples, FILMIC Pro ($4.99) comes with independent focus and exposure controls. The app also displays an audio meter, but doesn’t support real time monitoring of the audio through headphones. There is also ProCamera ($3.99) for video and photos with a digital light box. As with any app, however, review the latest customer ratings before purchasing the app.

I prefer the free QIK video app because it’s easy to use, supports several brands of phones, instantly uploads the video to a free QIK account, and even offers live streaming video when appropriate. (I ask my students to turn off the default live mode because it slows down video recording.) Students also have the option of making their QIK video “private” before uploading it.

In sum, video can be an educational tool to engage and inform students with projects that require research, planning, interviewing and writing. it’s an important part of my “scholarship in practice” course because it teaches students valuable communication skills that they can use in the future.

There’s little doubt that the popularity of video will continue to grow. According to Cisco, one of the leading corporations in networking, more than 50% of the mobile traffic in 2012 was video. By 2017, video is predicted to be two-thirds of the world’s mobile data traffic. That doesn’t necessarily mean more video producers but it does mean more video content. This is why when someone views mobile content produced by one my students, I am hopeful it will be the best mobile video they’ve ever seen.

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Steve Jurvetson]

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