Live and direct from the past

15th November 2002 at 00:00
Want to motivate students and help them become more media savvy at the same time? Digital video is the answer, says Ben Walsh

Picture the scene: a nervous head of history at Bishops' Blue Coat Church of England High School, Chester, watches the whole of Year 11 file into the school's computer rooms. When she and I planned this day six months earlier we thought we were mad. Now we are sure. Still, the planning and preparation has been meticulous. Terri Hull, head of history, has brought in a small army of teachers to act as helpersminders (it never hurts to be prepared) from the Bishops' partner schools in Chester, Liverpool and Mold. Two hours later the army of helpers sits around feeling a bit useless. Terri and I scratch our heads and ask: "Is it really going this well?"

Meanwhile, the students are busy, the only interruption being pesky teachers who keep wondering whether they can help. This really did happen, and the resource that made it happen was digital video. The students were using a prototype of a resource called History Live, soon to be published by Nelson Thornes. They were working in small teams, simulating a British television newsroom in 1963, and President John F Kennedy was visiting Berlin to see the Berlin Wall for the first time.

The students had a selection of background resources and recommended websites. However, the central resource was a collection of video clips on computer from 1961-63. Using these clips, they had to work in teams to research, plan and produce a three-minute news report to go out "live" that day. It was ICT being used to the optimum level. First and foremost, the students had an interesting and engaging task. Let's face it, would you rather take notes or make a movie in your history lessons?

Second, the archive video clips made the task possible. Third, the ICT made the news reports into a reality. Finally, the planning and classroom management allowed the students to work effectively in teams. The technician in the team was using Videowave editing software to edit clips, import the reporters' commentaries, add background sounds, bring in effective transitions between clips. The reporters were using the internet to locate still images, graphs, maps and other information.

They and the producers then used word processors to storyboard and script their reports. They employed sound recording software to record their reports, which would be played over the mainly silent clips. All of this exploited the shared area of the network to the full - no swapping of floppy disks here.

There are many brilliant examples of students using camcorders and editing the results, gaining inspiration along the way. None would be out of place in a good history lesson. But the historians do have this one edge - the vast archive of film material that provides an insight into past events and, more importantly, past minds.

Film-makers and aspiring journalists in history can recreate past news programmes or make retrospective documentaries. Using the most up-to-date software they can splice their own pieces to camera with footage from a particular period. More importantly, they can use these processes to consider important questions. For example, to what extent did footage report the news or shape the events it reported?

Neville Chamberlain's appeasement strategies were reported in the newsreels of the 1930s with great enthusiasm and approval. Did the approving approach of these newsreels reflect public opinion at the time or were they an attempt to influence it? By using footage, editing software and their brains, students can see how the meaning conveyed by moving images can be transformed. The way we look at silent footage of civil rights marchers in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s can be rapidly changed by a commentary that suggests a crowd was "orderly", or "tense".

It is easy to convince people that they are watching a clip of soldiers marching off to war in 1914, when it actually shows them returning in 1918. This happens today, not least when TV news reports put voiceovers on library footage. So how do we make students media savvy by looking at video as an authored text that needs to be deconstructed, rather than as a source of fact to be accepted unquestioningly?

First, digital video will not help students learn anything without a teacher to set up meaningful enquiry and encourage students to develop the insights we want them to have.

Where can relevant digital video clips be found? Nelson Thornes is soon to publish a collection of 12 assignments similar to the Berlin Wall task on a range of 20th century topics. Channel 4 has provided Clipbank, collections of clips and supporting resources on 20th century topics. The British Film Institute will soon launch Screen Online, a large collection of video clips available online on a range of themes and topics. The BFI is also set to publish a resource on the Suffragettes, using digital video as its core resource.

The Public Record Office education site The Learning Curve is already a source of video clips. Its online exhibitions on the Home Front in the Second World War, the Cold War and Britain 1906-18 all use video. The Learning Curve is also developing a resource called Onfilm, using online clips from a wide range of periods and topics, packaged up with tasks and assignments.

Then there are the tools we can use for students to turn clips into something they interpret. At the simplest level, software such as Microsoft's PowerPoint will import video clips into presentations. However, video editing software brings a whole new dimension to using digital video. There are many such packages. My personal favourites are QuickTime Pro from Apple and Videowave by Roxio.

Ben Walsh is a teacher, textbook author and a member of the Historical Association secondary education committee


Nelson Thornes

Channel 4


British Film Institute

Public Record Office Learning Curve

Videowave www.roxio.comenproductsvideowaveindex.jhtml


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