Video is the new writing: Are you literate?
A physics professor has found that his students benefit not only from watching instructional videos but also from making videos of their own experiments.
January 11, 2012Published: January 11, 2012
By Matthew Vonk
Humans have an astounding capacity to communicate, and it’s something that we love to do. We started telling stories around the campfire and haven’t been quiet since.
But as powerful as the spoken word is, it is ephemeral, containing a built-in expiration date, a “destroy after hearing” default that dissipates the words into the thermal noise of the atmosphere at the speed of sound.
To preserve our words, we turned to writing, first pressed into clay as a form of record keeping and then chiseled into rock monuments. The technologies of paper and parchment catalyzed new genres: literature and philosophy, religious texts, and musings on the natural world. But writing was limited to the educated elite because of the prohibitive cost of copying by hand and the time required learning to read and write.
Then the printing press came along and that fostered widespread literacy. Before we knew it, we were using writing informally—Dear John letters, recipes, and much more. Writing now so permeates our lives that we tattoo our bodies with foreign phrases, wrap our bubblegum in corny jokes, and scrawl lipstick words on bathroom mirrors.
The advent of cameras produced another parallel track of storable communication. It is interesting to note how completely pictures have recapitulated the written word’s developmental arc: photographs, silent movies, and talkies started as something that was produced by the elite; movies became the functional equivalents of novels; video journalism joined newspapers; and photographers with a social agenda like Ansel Adams hopped up on the soapbox with writers such as Upton Sinclair.
Then inexpensive still cameras and eventually cheaper video cameras inspired ever more personal genres of picture recording. The photo booth in the mall came to serve the same function that the name-carved elm tree had served previously; Christmas letters were supplemented with home movies of the new puppy; and Polaroid re-imagined haiku.
With the digital revolution we find video oozing into almost every capillary niche that writing has evolved for itself. We see video billboards along the highway, video instruction manuals, video resumes on the way in, and video obituaries on the way out. Even the video graffiti suggested by this hoax seems just around the corner. Like it or not, we seem to be using video in almost exactly the same way that we have used writing. And like it or not, a video analog has saddled up next to virtually every form of writing known, except in academia, where most professors I know are still requiring only written work.
I think that’s too bad.
I’m not saying that writing will go away anytime soon. I don’t think it will. In fact, with hyperlinks, e-books, and texting, the written word is going through a renaissance of its own. Rather, I’m saying that video will come to perform most of the same functions that writing does, and it will be important for our students to be just as fluent in video as they are in writing.
But learning to make a video for its own sake isn’t what interests me most as an educator. We are not far from the time when recording will join the other three Rs taught in grade school. And a cursory glance at SchoolTube makes it apparent that it’ll happen sooner rather than later. That tide will wash in with or without our assistance. What I wonder is how we, as educators, can harness that power and best exploit the innate advantages that video has over writing.
One way that I incorporate video into my classroom is to make instructional videos for my students. I would much rather watch a tutorial video than read a user manual. My students’ preference for video is even more pronounced, so I’ve made a pool of short videos that explain difficult concepts that my students can access as needed. It’s convenient for them, and it’s nice for me that I don’t have to repeat the same thing dozens of times. My colleague Andy Rundquist, a physics professor at Hamline University has done an especially nice job of creating a bank of such videos.
In my electronics class, I require my students to make videos of the circuits they make. This allows them to demonstrate their understanding of the theory of the circuit, to show the physical circuit while it’s working, and to compare its function to any circuit simulations they have run. Capturing a functioning circuit on camera is especially nice if the circuit is finicky and my students no longer have to worry that their circuit will flake out right when I happen to walk by.
I am convinced that making a video is a task more similar to the challenges our students will face once they graduate than solving problems on paper. How often will a future boss walk into their cubicle and say, “Calculate this number, Cody.” It’s much more likely the boss will say, “Show me what you’ve done” or “Explain this.”
I have found my students take more ownership, spend more time to get it right, and are much more creative than they were before I used video. For example, two of my students, Danica and Teddy, made a video in the style of a Star Wars movie to explain how to use a National Instruments data acquisition device (DAQ; figure 1).
Figure 1. Videos are an effective way for students to express their creativity and demonstrate they have understood a concept.
They mentioned how in the olden days collecting data was time consuming and tedious. They emphasized their point by showing video clips of unfortunate students making measurement after measurement by hand. The “old” footage was in fact a clip from their previous week’s video (on how to use a digital multimeter) that they had slowed down and converted to black and white. The “new” footage showed how different things became after DAQ-Vader overthrew the old regime and automated data collection. It’s a clever video, but more importantly, it’s clear that the students took the time to understand the electronics they are describing.
Two other students, David and John, produced a video about how to use the instruments in the electronics lab (figure 2). I didn’t think there would ever be an entertaining video about how to use an oscilloscope. Yet somehow their video, which takes the form of two hucksters selling dating aids to insecure men, not only is interesting but borders on being salacious with such quotes as, “Does your waveform not look big enough?” and “A guy needs to know how to use a trigger…early on, middle, or late.”
Figure 2. David and John beat the odds by making an oscilloscope video that's fun to watch.
I started the semester by having my students make a video about themselves. That video served two functions: It allowed them to learn the logistics of making and submitting a video in a situation in which they didn’t have to worry about learning new content, and it allowed me to get a sense of who my students were during the first week of classes.
I also have found video to be an effective assessment tool. When you can watch a student discuss a topic, comprehension—or the lack of it—readily becomes apparent. A student's misunderstanding is harder to fake in front of a video camera. In addition, grading students’ videos is a nice option for students with test anxiety.
Another unexpected bonus of using videos instead of written papers and lab reports is that, as a slow reader, I don’t have the option to go through them at double speed. With video, that option is just one sweet click away.
I think it will take decades for educators to figure out the most effective ways to use video in their classrooms. I don’t even know how I’ll use video next semester. Video can capture the facial expressions, the inflections, nuance, and the fluency of a presentation in a way that the written word simply can’t, despite centuries of experience with reading and writing. It goes against our interests as educators if we fail use the multidimensional richness of video in the classroom.
The other day I asked my mom what quirky use of writing would be the last enclave to be invaded by video. She thought a moment and said, “That banner they pull behind airplanes.”
And then a second later mom added, "or writing in the sand.”
Matthew Vonk teaches physics at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls. His research interests encompass atomic and molecular physics, electronics, and minor planet astronomy.