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Video Goes to Class

Students Teach, Learn With Technology

Students work in media center
Students in the Principles of Ecology course use the Media Center to create PSAs about climate change.

By Sandra Seitz

Learn by doing. This is the digital age. To master a subject, teach it to another.

In classrooms across campus, professors are incorporating these truths in a novel way – by assigning their students to make videos – with help from the staff of the Media Center, part of UMass Lowell Libraries. 

“Once the world went digital, media technology became widely accessible and prominent,” says Mitchell Shuldman, head of media services. “Our students need the skills of collaboration and the ability to use media to communicate.”

Numbers tell part of the story. Video production has been integrated into 21 courses across 12 disciplines, from the sciences to education. Shuldman and Assoc. Librarian John Callahan have collaborated with faculty on more than 120 class presentations. Using equipment and technical support in the Media Center, students have completed more than 300 projects: 99 percent of them through group teamwork. 

“At this point, more than 1,000 graduates have learned the skills of making content-related video,” says Shuldman, adding that two completed research studies identify such skills as in-depth subject mastery, collaboration, time management, advocacy and both creative and critical thinking.

With nearly 30 years in operation, UMass Lowell’s Media Center is a leader in media-supported teaching and learning. As educators recognize the importance of media, universities are expanding their facilities or building new centers.

Making It Work

Of course, the heart of this story is what happens in the classrooms. Course-related videos are anything but casual snippets that students post on social media. Instructors have important goals in mind for their students and the videos are intensive, major projects.

In the Graduate School of Education, Assoc. Prof. Pat Fontaine teaches social studies methods to future high school history teachers. Her project challenged the students to make a teaching video: to research the historic topic, create the video and present it to high school students, where its effectiveness at engaging students could be observed.

“The students are already savvy about making short movies,” says Fontaine. “This task demanded more – that they incorporate a sharp narrative and embed video, music and still photos – all at a level appropriate to the high school audience and within five minutes.”

Students formed themselves into teams of three, with an eye toward gathering different strengths. They chose topics such as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the Tet offensive in Vietnam. Fontaine and Shuldman laid out benchmark requirements (including story elements, script, storyboard and image sourcing) with deadlines. 

For images beyond those available in mainstream media, the students had access to UMass Lowell’s Home Movie Archive, “a great cultural resource,” says Fontaine.

“For the students, this was a very strong and meaningful project,” says Fontaine. “As a faculty member, it pushed me to collaborate, to entrust my students to Mitch’s judgment and care.”

Different Folks, Different Strokes

Video making can add depth to a surprising variety of subject areas.

“Our job [in the Media Center] is not to teach students how to be future public television interviewers,” says Shuldman. “It’s about teaching with and learning with technology. You learn more when you make something.” The Media Center posts some examples of student work from different courses.

David Lewis, professor in the Manning School of Business, introduced video in a quality management course for seniors. The task was to start with content and theory, then find out how it is really used in industry.

“I wanted to engage the students, to get them out into the field to interview working professionals, as well as give them a change of pace and a hands-on experience,” says Lewis. “I was a completely naïve beginner myself.”

Working in small teams, the students had to prep extensively for their interviews, learning the content in depth and preparing for digressions. Milestones kept them on track. The completed works were screened during the final exam period, attended by other faculty in the department.

“Students were apprehensive to begin with,” says Lewis. “Most loved it in the end and the experience is likely to pay off at their own job interviews.”

Education Assoc. Prof. Judith Davidson used the video project in an undergraduate course in education (with 20 to 30 students) that she developed with the help of now UMass Lowell Registrar Kerry Donohoe, who received her doctorate from the GSE. 

“The task was to describe their personal path to becoming educators – what informs their purpose, what they have learned from others,” says Davidson. “It’s a form of digital storytelling and was very meaningful. Students told us they were surprised to have gained a better understanding of their own beliefs.

“Visual communication is part of our basic literacy,” adds Davidson. “You are not literate if you can’t use these media tools.”

For a course in virology taught by Biological Sciences Assoc. Prof. Michael Graves, students created videos about various viruses, using the medium to learn about and illustrate infectious agents and the ravages of disease they caused.
Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga of the Biological Sciences Department also leads the Climate Change Initiative at UMass Lowell. She has incorporated video at many levels, from undergraduate courses to workshops for educators.

“Climate change science is complex,” says Rooney-Varga. “An interdisciplinary perspective is needed to understand the dynamics of change and consequences. Add the political forces, emotional responses and entrenched misconceptions – you have many barriers to effective learning.”

Rooney-Varga finds that incorporating media production engages the students in both affective learning – using metaphor, images, storytelling – and analytical reasoning. She incorporated the project into the interdisciplinary undergraduate course on principles of ecology, making it a three-day intensive workshop to create public service announcements (PSA) about climate change.

“Students knew they would present their work and discuss their findings in a public forum of their peers. That added to their motivation and sense of empowerment,” she says. “Even though the PSA videos are of amateur quality, our survey shows the student-produced pieces had the same or more impact than professional messages.”