March of progress

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
From a 1930s workers' protest to a modern classroom, Merlin John shows how digital video bridges the gap.

Dressed in flat caps from their parents' and grandparents' bottom drawers, the children of St Austin's Primary School, Liverpool, looked the part, particularly as their movie re-enactment of the Jarrow marchers was shot in black-and-white video to give it a period feel. The hard-hearted employer, arm outstretched, palm outwards, declares: "Talk to the hand because the face isn't listening." An example of the no-compromise dialogue that identifies the Liverpool youngsters as more Ken Loach than Ken Barlow.

St Austin's was one of the 50 or so schools taking part in a national pilot scheme run earlier this year by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) to investigate the educational potential of digital video. After seeing some of the pioneering work done by schools with Apple's digital video kit, Becta put an Apple iMac computer and Canon digital video camera into each of the 50 pilot schools. They used Apple's QuickTime and iMovie software to edit their footage. Following publicity about the project, about 1,500 schools put in applications to take part.

St Austin's Jarrow video has turned heads everywhere, and is a breathtaking example of what can happen when children's creativity is unleashed on curriculum projects. The St Austin's pupils also made science videos, with a "mad professor" demonstrating key points in science.

Science is at the heart of film, as our enjoyment of moving images - which are not actually moving at all - is based on the phenomenon of "persistence of image". The eye holds on to an image just long enough for a stream of different images to appear as continuous movement. Places such as the National Museum of Film and Television in Bradford have their own resources to exploit this, as well as helpful resources for digital video (a quick search on "digital video" on the museum's website reveals a wealth of curriculum worksheets for a range of ages).

Until relatively recently, digital movie-making was previously beyond schools because of its price. Now it's possible to buy a complete system, including camera, for about pound;1,000 from a number of education suppliers. Apple might have pioneered the technology but education PC suppliers such as RM and Viglen are hot on its heels. And high street suppliers such as PC World are now showing home-school equipment from household brands such as Hewlett Packard along with a range of digital video cameras at about pound;500 and even less.

Teachers wanting to get their children on a video shoot have to get over the compulsion that somehow they have to "deliver" the curriculum, and the notion that this somehow excludes enjoyable, creative work.

The pioneering work of schools across the UK and those involved in the Becta project is showing the way, and Becta's Creativity and Digital Video Awards, launched in March this year, have stirred up more interest in schools. Now they can start to embed good digital video practice in curriculum work. The factor that has excited everyone involved is the tremendous motivation of the students - they regard it as their medium.

Becta chief executive Owen Lynch is intrigued by its possibilities: "I saw some disadvantaged 12 to 13-year-old children in a school in Boston, USA, working on a project on gravity. They were working together filming themselves as they dropped different objects. They were struggling with expressing themselves to each other, expressing the science and expressing themselves through the digital video technology. To watch them work as a team and decide how to work and express their ideas was a great learning process. It was wondrous."

St Austin's work begins and ends with the curriculum, and this school's source of inspiration is, believe it or not, the establishment's own gold standard, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority website and its schemes of work.

The challenge for schools that have the equipment is how to organise their activities. Not everyone can go running around with a video camera. Roles have to be allocated and adhered to, just as in professional film-making. And you can't have your junior Ken Russells and Ridley Scotts trading blows in the editing suite; everyone must know and accept their duties.

Digital video lends itself happily to a range of school activities. These include reporting back to parents on trips and sports, and video records of achievement - particularly effective for demonstrating aspects of the curriculum, such as dangerous experiments in science, or where parents are concerned about their child's performance or behaviour, for example with special needs (check out the work of Frank Wise Special School, Oxfordshire on The TES's website archive or visit the Frank Wise site). Planning is crucial. Where there are curriculum objectives, don't allow yourself to be side-tracked by the technology. Keep in mind the Liverpool children whose verve, directly connected to the curriculum, found such effective expression through this technology.

For more information on the Creativity in Digital Video Awards, visit the Becta website. For a free copy of Teaching and Learning Using Digital Video, which includes the findings of the Becta digital video project and case studies, Email: National Museum of Photography, Film and Television Check out persistence of vision at: outofsightbird.asp Visit the archive on The TES website and search "digital video" and writers such as Vivi Lachs, Jack Kenny and David Baugh



Digital video cameras are available from education and high street suppliers starting at about pound;500. Favourites include Canon, JVC, Panasonic, Sony and Samsung, all of which supply small, sturdy and relatively easy-to-use models. All use a small digital video cassette that is standard across the brands.

Tip: buy a sturdy tripod at the same time.


Make sure you have a powerful PC or Mac (prices start about pound;800) with plenty of memory, a capacious hard disc (video takes a lot of space) and a high-speed connector known as FireWire. PCs need video cards and these are available from a number of sources (Pinnacle provides card and software).

Apple still has a lead. All its machines support video work and include iMovie software. Education suppliers such as RM and Viglen have their own all-in offerings. Check out PC World. High street suppliers and department stores such as John Lewis have products for home use.


Recent versions of Windows have their own basic video editing facilities, and Apple has the more advanced iMovie. If you need greater sophistication you can pay the extra and go for professional programs such as Final Cut Pro (Apple) or Adobe Premier (PC and Mac).


Make sure your camera has the facility to copy video to standard VHS cassettes so it can be shown elsewhere. And it's useful if your computer has an internal CD or DVD burner so that you can share your work. Short video files can also be made available on your website for others to download.

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