Teaching with Media

Ben Howell Davis

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Technology and Education Conference, Ekpedeftiria Doukas S.A., Athens, Greece, 1991.

Copyright, 1991.

Is it necessary, really, to learn how to read a film? Obviously, anyone of minimal intelligence over the age of four can - more or less - grasp the basic content of a film, record, radio, or television program without any special training. Yet precisely because the media so very closely mimic reality, we apprehend them much more easily than we comprehend them.

James Monaco, How to Read a Film. J. Monaco, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977, p. vii.

The traditional blackboard is really very much like a computer screen. It can be used to explain ideas graphically, with text and numbers, and can be used by the students like an interactive interface in a computer. Use of films, videotapes, audiotapes, records, and even performance can enhance the learning process in the classroom - without the computer. This technique of "multiple media" requires creativity and planning. What media are available? How much of it should be used? What happens if it doesn't work? What is the proper role for teaching with media? When is it just a distraction?

Media in the classroom are appropriate for triggering ideas, making difficult subjects more understandable, and for holding attention on important ideas. It should lead students to remember ideas by becoming more involved with them. What is not always obvious is that students should first know what media is and ways to think about it. Critical skills in understanding media are extremely important; without them the film, video, record or slide presented in relation to a subject is only one dimensional.

My own experiences in teaching and using various media in the classroom are somewhat skewed in that I was teaching art or media or some combination. The nature of the classes dictated that I demonstrate most of the expressive media that we use to communicate with - print, books, drawing, slides, film, video, audio, computer screens. What I gained from these experiences was both a knowledge of what these media are and how they can be used (or not used) in the classroom. Although I was not teaching math or science (although technically television is a wonderful way to teach physics and I did have a physicist come to my video classes to explain how images got from reality to the screen) I have since employed what I learned to help teachers from a variety of subjects at MIT visualize their subjects with multimedia computing technology. This technology "models" what is done in the classroom to some degree but has the added feature of being able to connect this model to electronic libraries.

Generally when instructors came to the Visual Computing Group (the Visual Computing Group at MIT's Project Athena was a team of specialists that worked with faculty to develop multimedia computing applications in a variety of disciplines. It is now in the MIT Center for Educational Computing Initiatives) with an idea for translating or extending their class with multimedia computing, we asked them "How do you usually teach this? How do you present the material? By lecture? How do you work with the blackboard? Do you use overhead slides? Do you use video or films? Do you lecture and then take questions? Which concepts in the course are hardest to get across? What questions are always asked? Are students playing active roles in the class or are they taking notes? What kind of examples do you use? What classes, or TV shows, or performances have you seen that you thought were possibly relevant to your subject? If you had any means at your disposal what is your dream method for teaching this course?

Before becoming involved with multimedia computing I taught for ten years in a small fine arts college in Atlanta. I also taught at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, at the Visible Language Workshop in the MIT Media Laboratory, in the Department of Communications, Computing, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, and most recently in the Visual Arts Program in the MIT Department of Architecture and Urban Planning. These experiences all focused on using various media in the classroom with varying amounts of success. They are worth reviewing.

When I was an art teacher I was confronted with the problem of grading students who brought a creative work to me. An art work in the academic context can be considered like any other "problem" solved in a discipline except that in solving it a tangible visual (except in the case of a musical work) object results. When the creative problem is solved it is said to "work". Literally taken, to make "artwork" means that the object communicates on a multimodal level. It satisfies abstract needs for the maker and the viewer. In terms of "grading" this process, essentially I graded what I conceived to be the "quality of their interest" in what they were doing and the mastery of the medium or technique they had chosen to represent their ideas. I had no problem, except in the case of a student who had done a poor job and knew it. Part of being a teacher is to confront the student with what he/she is doing. In the case of a student who was interested and showed a degree of mastery of his/her interest, my role consisted of finding the best means of learning for the student.

I mention this process because, as I pursued other teaching, I used this art school technique as a way of understanding how to present information in a multimodal way. As a teacher of film, video, photography, and then drawing, I discovered that I could co-teach my classes with a variety of mechanical assistants. These assistants could help me make the impact of a statement like "The invention of film was thought to be a scientific indication that immortality was achievable" by actually showing the first moving images of animal locomotion by Edweard Muybridge that elicited that comment from an amazed newspaper critic at the turn of the century. The slide projector, the indispensible assistant of the art history teacher, was the basic tool of the visual lecture. As a photographer it was natural for me to take pictures and make slides for my classes much the same way someone else would jot down lecture notes. It did't really matter if the slides were museum artworks as long as they held up a point I could make while speaking. They could easily be characterized as "snap shots" that by themselves had no common meaning but in the context of a lecture gave a student a visual reminder, an index for the idea I had presented.

On a fellowship at MIT in 1984 at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies I conceived and taught a course on art and communications called "Transmission" which consisted of lectures and an improvised live cable television program once a week. Admittedly this is something that might only be done at a place like MIT where such technological resources are the expected rather than the exception. Each week we would explore some concept in the realm of "public art vs. private art" or "mass communication vs. personal expression". Much like the traditional art courses I had taught, the students would experience classroom lectures with mechanical assistants like tape players, video cassettes, slides, films. There would also be the occasional human assistant, a guest speaker who would usually require some mechanical device as well. But during the cable program they would demonstrate what they had learned in class by actually producing live video and audio imagery that would be telecast to the MIT campus. Unlike a student who makes a painting or photograph as a requirement for an art class, these students were making electronic images meant to be seen immediately by a large audience.

The lessons from this class were many. First, students developed hands-on critical skills in regard to media. They knew how something like video was made and how it could manipulate a message. They also learned how to match an idea to an image-making technique and they learned that they could evolve that idea by applying subsequent media to it. They learned how to say no to the technology as well. One of the most moving experiences from the class involved understanding what "live" television actually meant. We had a custom of taping each show so that we could look at it afterword and discuss what was successful and what had failed. Remember, the program was live on MIT cable which meant that what they improvised was immediately seen and reacted to. We never telecast a pre-recorded program. One evening after an especially well-done telecast we were anxious to see the tape. Someone had forgotten to turn on the video tape recorder. There was no synthetic memory of the events of the evening. There was an immediate depression. Who was guilty for not recording the program? Then it occurred to all of them that this was the best lesson of the class - we were live!

The images were transitory. Like actors in a one-performance play, we had committed ourselves to being totally spontaneous for thirty minutes and the record was lost, never to be reconstructed. Art had imitated life. It was easily the best show. There was a totally emotional understanding of the difference between live and recorded television. Their critical understanding of the medium was complete. As they approached the content of other shows, they began experimenting with using pre-recorded and live imagery, answering the phone and telecasting the calls on the air while shifting imagery to relate to the caller's question or comment. They were now in complete control of the medium.

Now when I used video in class lectures with them they had a completely different atttitude about it. They would first critique the quality of the tape, the production values, how carefully it was made, and how well it communicated the ideas it was supposed to convey. They knew this medium just the way they knew different teachers and friends who attempted to give them messages.

In 1987, while managing the Visual Computing Group at Project Athena I continued my classroom teaching at the Visible Language Workshop in the MIT Media Laboratory with colleagues from Athena Dorothy Shamonsky, former VLW graduate and graphics designer and Matthew Hodges, Visiting Scientist from Digital Equipment Corporation. We conceived two courses, HyperVision and HyperSense. HyperVision was concerned with the design and construction of visual databases using recordable videodisc as the medium. It required students not only to understand the technical aspects of laser read/recorded optical media but to understand the way images could be assembled for many different uses by a computer. HyperSense was involved with programming these visual databases using the first modules of Athena Muse, the multimedia software under development at Athena.

The lecture situation for these classes was very simple. I would generally use a slide projector and talk. The topic of "HyperVision" was how images could be linked in interesting ways to make statements, ask questions, create moods, leave impressions, or tell a story. I went through a history of how images and technologies for sequencing them evolved from cave painting to modern film. I collected the slide images from books, magazines, TV programs, and by photographing things in my own experience that I thought might be fun to work into the lectures. The medium the students would be working with, recordable videodisc, allowed for the recording of still images, moving images, and sound. They were asked to bring in images in any or all of these formats to class every time we met in order to talk about their visual scheme for a section of the videodisc. At mid-semester, when their own ideas were well formed, we asked them to now think about how their pieces would work together, as a unified, group-generated videodisc. They had to especially think about what transitions needed to be made to get from one set of concerns to another.

The resulting videodisc was quite successful and could be viewed as a single vision or broken into individual works. Subjects ranged from a first person surrogate travel on the Boston Subway to psychcological commentary on feminist concerns to collecting insects. The process of putting it together was much more to the point of the class.

By working with a specific a media, in this case videodisc, which was unique to the MIT environment, they brought interests to bear on what they initially viewed as learning a new media technology. The end result, however, was that they collected information and organized it, thereby intensifying their interests. They became researchers using imagery to understand particular ideas. This, of course, is really a high tech version of "show and tell" but with the added dimension of attempting to coherently sequence each person's "show and tell" into a unified work. That attempt raised many questions about each topic and led to each person teaching the other in depth - with media - about what they were trying to express and why. As instructors, we would encourage them to "present" their contemporary ideas while we presented some historical structures that would give them a basis for creating a group structure. Topics like illuminated manuscript, panel painting, early printing, newspaper layout, book design, photo essays, film sequences, and advertising design were discussed with slides. The use of single slide images to discuss moving imagery was also interesting in that the dialog would usually "animate" them.

The strategy of using only the slide projector in this case worked well because the students had to think about their visual ideas in discrete parts and only saw them move when we put them on the videodisc.

The second class, HyperSense, involved programming interactive videodiscs. The class made use of the videodisc and by mid-semester had made a new one based on things they were learning about computer-assisted image technology. This class focused more on computer utilities for making the imagery function. They investigated Apple's HyperCard system which is modeled after a stack of note cards that can be shuffled and linked in a variety of ways. They also worked with Project Athena's first modules of Athena Muse which is a more advanced system modeled on the concept of documents in spatial arrangements. This concept in a sense allows for information to be correlated in any form you may need, not just in a "stack" as the Apple software dictates. You could create "rooms" of information with Muse and then proceed to walk through the room choosing to look at multimedia documents made of video, audio, graphics, and text which were strategically placed in the space. Each document could act as a door to another space with another set of documents and so on: a very dynamic and conceptually intricate paradigm for learning.

In this class we simply used the blackboard and some simple illustrations with an overhead projector or a slide projector. Often the images were of earlier "hyper" structures like the Talmud, Vedic networks, neural diagrams, roots of trees, maps of communications systems, river systems, etc. that would convey the variety of interconnected information systems both natural and man-made. The other mechanical assistant was, of course, the Athena Visual Workstation which was a fully interactive multimedia platform complete with cable TV, videodisc, and stereo sound with a high resolution screen. Students used Muse to construct various interfaces for their video segments. These classes were conducted in a cluster of these machines and lectures were usually delivered while students were at the machines.

In 1988-89 I began teaching classes at Teachers College, Columbia University. Still managing the group at Athena and commuting by train and plane to New York City, I taught a class in Formal Analysis of Media and later co-taught one called Aspects of Visualization.

The lecture room at Columbia was equipped with a video projector, a computer screen projector, a slide projector, a film projector, an audio cassette player, VHS and 3/4 video cassette players, videodisc player, full stereo sound system, a microphone if you wanted it, and plenty of extra inputs if you wanted two or more of anything. In short, it was a full multimedia classroom and came with a media engineer who, although sometimes irritable, would set up the room any way you wanted. This situation was ideal for Formal Analysis of Media which was a fundamental course in understanding both technically and conceptually how media works. One of the most interesting experiments in this class was to ask students to write a paper on what they expected to learn in the class. After they turned in the papers I photographed them (the papers) with 35MM slides and during the next class I projected them eight feet high. The papers ranged from hand written to neatly typed to badly typed, to inexpensive computer printer to laser printed and were all formatted in different ways. The students were asked to evaluate the papers based on appearance. Handwritten papers were immediately dismissed as "rush jobs", badly typed papers were "amateur", expensive laser printed papers were "published" and fancy formating with word processor software was "fluff". The mediums definitely had collegiate messages. This exercise made the point quite nicely that to understand a media it is helpful to put it inside another media. Slides of paper documents revealed their formal natures and the cultural values we place on them.

I used the room very much as it was designed - as a media theater. I could easily move from lecture to lecture with slides, to audio tape to videodisc or videotape or film. I began composing lectures mentally a week before each class. I would tape imagery off my home television, cue up audio tapes, take photographs, rent films or tapes, print out computer-composed notes and essays for each class. I could show slides of video, video of film, film of video, videodisc of photography, project slides over videotapes, project computer text or graphics, virtually any combination I could think of to make a point. Students were encouraged to bring imagery to class in any format and if they wanted to raise an issue or make a point they could use the equipment as well. It was a very popular course in large part because I was using familiar media to teach things most everyone already knew but did not know how to articulate. Things like "why I hate commercials" or "why television drama is so bad", or "why the news is not the truth" or "why Kurosawa is a great filmmaker". The class was usually on Friday afternoons and I told them that it was the prelude to a weekend in New York City, the most media-intensive place in North America.

The class produced some very exciting work and I still hear from students from time to time and they send me articles and papers about media as well. I did discover some disturbing things about this ideal media classroom. One was that we were almost always in total darkness even on the nicest spring days. Another was that when all the media was shut off my voice had incredible authority. And the most disturbing thing of all was that students started writing emotional papers about disillusionment with reality. I think the availability of media in the classroom made it quite easy to saturate the students. This experience, though, was quite useful in understanding the difference between the "ideal" media classroom and the reality.

Currently I am teaching sections of the foundations courses in the MIT Visual Arts Program on "Time and Identity".

This new program at MIT in the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning is developing a curriculum in the visual arts aimed at giving students a sense of artistic thought by helping them to understand the relationship between thinking and making, the binding of process and product, an understanding of history and culture in artistic activity, the role of media in the inquiry process, and developing a critical vocabulary. A traditional fine arts format involving painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography is being augmented by multimedia and graphic computing capabilities. This combined approach of old and new technologies is aimed at giving students a sense of the "work of art" both as an object and as a process. An essential conception of the program is the notion that media are modes of thinking and methods of inquiry that condition the type and extent of the investigation. For the artist "work comes from work" means that new ideas are refined by generating art works, evaluating them, and creating new pieces.

The governing attitudes of the Visual Arts Program are about process being as important as product, media as a mode of exploration, the rewarding of risks taken during discovery, the transparency of technique, growth as a measure of performance, the understanding of conventions as boundaries that demand examination, and the revelation of personal styles of inquiry. Students in the Visual Arts Program work on problems that address the dialectic between restraint and openness, two dimensions vs. three dimensions, artistic metaphor (ritual, expression, language, critique, cultural index), audience consideration, art and nature, representation, temporal experience, language and image, concept, documentation, scale, kinetics, collecting, site, and material limitation.

The "Time and Identity" sections deal with how ideas and information are transformed by time. Students work out problems in how private identity is reflected and altered by using the prime tool of mass communication: video. Teaching this course in 1990 has been an interesting journey from 1975 when I first began my teaching career as a "video teacher". Students now are technically very literate and have better critical skills in dealing with mass media. At MIT these are the students who have grown up with the video camera and the VCR. It is disturbing, however, that there is still no basic framework for teaching media literacy in the public schools. Students now have simply been exposed to more television and media technology like computers, which makes them a bit less inhibited about "interacting" with media.

For my first classes in this program I wanted to talk about the notion of a "media landscape" as a way of approaching the "public identity". To this end I brought an audio cassette player (the large "boom box" type) with cassettes of American and Japanese pop music, a short-wave radio, a small hand-held TV, a videodisc, a compact disc, a videocassette player, monitor, small 8MM video camera, slides, videotapes of TV commercials, and an assortment of odd props like rubber rocks, a rubber rock with a computer chip in it that when hit makes the sound of a breaking window, some xerox copies, a newspaper, etc. In other words, as much public and private media as I could find. This I used as I talked, moving from one prop to the other to finally assemble all of the objects on a table top in the form of a miniature city which I proceeded to turn on so that there was a cacophony of sounds and images that I could then make a video tape of - much like an aerial photographer.

We then played the tape back on the monitor and discussed what was being seen, the way I had videotaped it, how it might be improved with lighting or sound effects, etc. This demonstration had the effect of "igniting" the class into a very nearly over-excited mob. Ultimately I had to stop the demonstration in order to let them calm down. They enthusiastically understood what was being demonstrated because it was the familiar landscape of their own lives over which they had little control. The class then proceeded on to assignments that allowed them to change this condition by making "private media" images that were quiet, had different time signatures (unlike 10 or 30 second TV commmercials), and required contemplation rather than passive viewing. They worked in teams of five or six with one camera between them and taught each other a good many video skills.These videotapes were quite successful and gave them a confidence in "art-making" that most of them could not get as quickly with drawing, painting, or sculpture because of the length of time needed in those mediums to get something "to work". As an introduction to the arts it was a very good match between materials (video) and ideas. The program opted to buy more video cameras for the next semester.

In every case I tried to explain why I was using a certain media in the classroom. Admittedly this was actually required in most of the subjects I was teaching. But in a larger sense it has pointed out to me that the use of media in the classroom is not really for entertainment or to mask a poor grasp of a subject. Rather, it is admitting that the world we live in has useful lessons for us. Instead of avoiding the contemporary confusion that media often evokes, we must find ways of using it coherently to complete the sense of relevancy we desperately need in the classroom.

This balancing of using media to explain or illustrate and media discussed for its own sake is the key to using it successfully. Above all, it should amuse YOU to be doing this in your class. All too often we are so immersed in our field of interest that we forget our students may only have a small percentage of that interest when they come to class. Certainly we do not want to merely entertain them. Rather we want to create situations where the subject is seen freshly as often as possible not only for them but for ourselves. By using a short videotape, a film, a recording, or even a seemingly unrelated picture that gives students a marker for a difficult idea we can create memory triggers that hold attention, give emphasis, or stimulate recall.


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