Digital video is easier and cheaper to produce and use in history lessons than ever. Apple Mac users have long benefited from slick editing software, but Windows PCs now come with Microsoft MovieMaker as standard, too. This is a wonderfully simple program to use: students will be able to get going after you give a five-minute introduction based around a Flash tutorial from the web.
Moreover, the cost of the hardware has fallen substantially in recent years. It is possible to get a digital camcorder, which has had good reviews, from Amazon, for little over pound;100 (the Nisis DV6). Many students will even have a video capture facility on their mobile phone.
Finally, improvements in video compression, memory storage and internet speeds have made it easier to share and access digital films. Moviemaker allows you to choose the size of the film created, and a good balance between resolution and size allows for about 150 minutes of video to be burned on a CD, or on a USB memory stick (a 1GB stick costs about pound;30, provides 25 per cent more space than a CD and makes it simple to transfer files).
Digital video can also be quickly uploaded and downloaded from the web with a broadband connection.
Digital video helps teachers improve the quality of their student assessment. For example, role-play activities are fun, but giving a grade to each student is difficult when you are busy ensuring the lesson runs smoothly. But if the lesson is filmed, you can use video as the basis of a more detailed assessment. And back in class such films can be useful for self-assessment, too.
Richard Jones-Nerzic, head of humanities at the International School of Toulouse, says: "On my PGCE course I remember us being filmed as we taught our first dry-run lessons and selfconsciously squirming at the sight of myself on screen. But I learnt a lot."
The same, he argues, is true of students who have an opportunity to review their "performances". At his school, students are filmed delivering presentations to the rest of the group. The raw footage is placed on the school server and the students edit their presentations. The class then evaluates each other's presentations and the best go on the departmental website.
By the sixth form, this assessment process is more systematic, with students working through a detailed marking scheme that includes comments about body language, pitch and tone of voice, eye contact and so on.
Traditional paper and pencil assessment does not reward the student whose strengths are kinaesthetic or spatial. But the filmmaking process touches upon a whole range of learning styles. Depending on the project, you might need students to become directors, editors, artists, musicians, cameramen, researchers, scriptwriters or actors.
Moreover, the knowledge that the final production will be visible to the whole school community, or even on the internet, encourages each student to take the exercise seriously. When students are aware that they will be making a digital film of a school trip, they become very focused. Equipped with the knowledge that the most essential aspects of the film will be its narrative content and images, students will all use their cameras to record key parts of the day, and will furiously scribble down notes from the guided tour.
Teaching historical skills
Returning from their field trip, students will use their editing software to produce their own two-minute film about the day. Students have total control over what visual and narrative information to include. In this way, they will reflect upon the day much more than would otherwise have been the case, and, by comparing the films in class, students are sensitised to the fact that the impressions created by historical documentaries are as much characterised by what facts the film-maker chooses to include as by their interpretation of those facts.
Similarly, during classroom debates, students will invariably miss a lot of what is said and be more concerned about how and what they are going to contribute. So it is useful to get each student to edit their own version of the original film down to a five-minute short. This will involve watching and listening to what was said by everyone, and deciding what points are most important. This can be useful exam preparation if the debate topic is an expected essay question.
As well as reinforcing knowledge of content, such exercises develop historical skills by sensitising students to the techniques used by documentary-makers to manipulate the viewer. All too often, historical documentaries in particular are used as a repository of content knowledge rather than as sources in their own right. This, for Richard Jones-Nerzic, is a travesty:
"As Goebbels argued, 'Films constitute one of the most modern and scientific means of influencing the masses,' yet the close examination of written sources, which dominates history lessons throughout the world, does little to prepare students to be critical users of the medium that is most likely to shape their understanding of the past," he says.
As a result, his students produce their own Nazi propaganda film, which is designed to attract financial support from Goebbels. Each group produces two short films: one short scene, which is fully developed with script and storyboard, and one "trailer" summarising the film.
Digital video work is also useful across the curriculum. The students responsible for the Nazi storyboarding were able to enter their work as part of their art coursework, and some of the screenplays made it into their English portfolios. Ironically, in the end, none of it counted towards their final history grade.
Russel Tarr is author of the award-winning website
* An excellent Flash tutorial for MovieMaker
* Full text of a digital video seminar by Richard Jones-Nerzic
* The humanities website of the International School of Toulouse has many examples of student-produced digital video projects.
* The Film Education website has lots of ideas for teaching students to interpret and analyse films