Multimedia: August 2009 Archives

Compelling Video vs Compelling Research

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Way back on Aug 3, I wrote a piece on the technical challenges of creating an academic video that could have the same function as a written thesis. However, I think there's an even bigger challenge in that compelling video is typically NOT the same thing as a compelling research.

Compelling Video

For many classroom video projects, the goal has been to encourage students to be creative, to develop a rich narrative or even arouse the sense or emotions. Successful projects have included hip-hop videos, mini dramas, slide shows, or readings of family memoirs.

What they have NOT been are research papers. In fact, when one instructor reported that students read content over a series of bullet points, his comment was "the content of that film was actually excellent...but it was tortuous to watch".

As a culture, we generally have the expectation that a video is going to somehow engage us beyond the mere data. Either the images/music will be dynamic, or there will be some sort of "plot" or "parody" or there will be a "story" behind the history. This can be a good goal, but it's not the goal of research.

Compelling Research

There are many types of research methodologies, but most of them actually involve placing data over emotion or plot. A NASA researcher may count ring bands in Saturn, an anthropologist may observe behavior in unusual groups (maybe even watchers of reality TV) without passing judgment or a linguist may collect data from sources ranging from epic poetry to the most obscene pieces of graffiti - again without passing literary judgment.

Boring? Maybe. Critical? Yes. Because at some point, we may draw a hypothesis (maybe) on what we think is going on. But for many researchers, I think there's always a background concept that any conclusion may be overturned at any time by new data. Maybe a satellite will get closer to Saturn, or yet another piece of ancient prose will emerge from the dirt or they will find a better way of observing TV viewers. Some findings may seem definite, but really it could be reinterpreted in the context of a new finding later on. In other words, there is really no ending - only a series of ongoing chapters.

Why the emphasis on lack of judgment? Because many disciplines know the dangers that emotion and a predetermined conclusion can lead to. Archaeology is full of stories of governments using "data" (or lack thereof) in a constant game of historic one-upmanship. Similarly, linguists know that many people have used data on language origins to reinforce old ethnic tensions. We can all tell a compelling "story", but is it the right one? Is it the one we meant to tell?

I don't know, but one thing I can say is that a lot of good research it is really bad video. Interestingly, my "favorite" pieces of research are raw data points. It may be a map of data points, a chart of numbers, or a word list pulled from a dictionary. I may have an interpretation, but really, it is beneficial if multiple researchers can examine the same data and draw their own conclusions. Not only is this bad video, but it's probably bad PowerPoint too!

Back to Video

Now that I've taken a side trip to the researcher's ivory tower, I'm going to come back to earth and say I do believe that the narrative video does have a place in the academic curriculum. As much as I may love words lists, I also know that most non-linguists find it gibberish (much as I would an astronomical table).

At some point, the scientific community has to find a way to disseminate key findings to the public, and video is a great way to do that. Thus far, most academics have left it to others to do the task of dissemination - whether it be journalists, video producers, free lance writers or Star Trek writers. Now I will say that these folks have produced some fine work, but in a lot of cases, the results seem a little dubious.

Perhaps the lesson of video is that academics need to find a way to take what they have learned and repackage it in a way that is compelling to the average educated adult, yet accurate enough to be useful. Because a better informed society just makes better decisions. On on a more personal level...although this skill might not help a researcher get the next NSF grant, it may make more NSF grants possible in the future.

And Back to Rigor in Video

Before I could press the "Submit" button, I realized that there is an ethical component to consider. There are actually are academics who have mastered this skill of presenting academic information to the public, but sometimes it can be presenting disinformation to the public. I think this is where academic rigor is important in video - it just isn't the same role as in an written thesis. Maybe responsible videos will include a written component for video projects. It works for PBS.

Using Flickr to Archive Photos for a Course

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One of the grad students Teaching with Technology Certificate portfolios has a good example of using tagging in Flickr to organize photos that he's taken which can be used in a course. Jason Brooks from Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies department uses a Flickr Stream to not only post his phoots, but to organize them into sets for different themes or different museums/sites.

I don't know how the course is structured, but I can imagine that he can go to one set on a particular session to show the students the images. Having them organized by topics could also allow the students to go back and review the images by topic (presuming that they are aware of this site). Definitely a good shocase of Flickr for teaching.

Video for Academic Purposes - A Few Challenges

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An ongoing discussion we've been having in terms of digital literacy is how video can be made to have same quality (and status) as a traditional research paper. This is an interesting question to explore for many reasons, one of which is to contemplate why the "traditional" method is what it is and compare it to video.

As I think we all know, the traditional medium for academic discourse is text with a few images included as required. One of the advantages of this system is that it's relatively cheap to create and reproduce text and images. Consider that until the invention of the late 19th century, it was virtually impossible to record and play back sound. In the modern era thought, the cost factor is being reduced due to access to cheap hardware and software.

However, there are other factors which make translating a research paper more difficult than it might appear on the surface.

This is going to be a long discussion, so let's dive right in...

Video as Artifact

First, it's important to note that video and audio in academic research has been around for several decades - but as an "artifact" embedded in a text-based document. For instance, an ethnographer may record an interview and transcribe it later. Or a lab experiment may be video taped and still images incorporated into a document (perhaps with a link to a video snippet).

However, I don't think that's the issue on the table. The challenge I think we have been discussing is how to create a video presentation that is considered as valid as a text-based research paper, master's thesis or dissertation.

Citations & Data Tables in Academic Prose

If we are to truly substitute a video file (or set of video files) for an equivalent academic piece, one challenge that will have to be overcome is how to include items such as citations, bibliographies, footnotes and data tables.

On a simplistic level we can just embedded tables and citations within a video and include footnotes and a bibliography in the final credits. In fact, several Gen Ed video projects, such as the ones done for Econ 2 already require a bibliography in the credits.

For Econ 2, this is sufficient for the assignment at hand - create a fun but informational education module. For me though this assignment, while pedagogically sound, is not the really the equivalent of a research paper but more of creating a lesson plan, textbook learning module or educational pamphlet.

A textbook may or may not include citations and a bibliography, but even if it does that bibliography is not a core component of the text. The content in a textbook is generally something that has been pre-screened and "accepted" by an academic community. Its function is basically convey that information to students (or new members of a community of practice).

Similarly, the function of an educational pamphlet is to convey information from a body of experts to a larger non-expert audience. Again, although citations and a bibliography (or further reading) may be given, it is not considered essential to the piece.

In academic prose, on the other hand, citations are critical and often carefully examined by the reader. The presumption is generally that a paper (at least by the master's thesis) is an original piece of work that must be defended to the academic community (aka the thesis committee).

Citations serve an important role here because it 1) introduces the reader to the background of the issue (and is a credential check) 2) is a chance to similar data if it exists and 3) generally shows what assumption the author is making and if they are valid. As such, they are carefully perused by the reader. When a skeptical reader wonders where that crazy idea/fact came from - the answer should be in the citations.

A similar role is served by data tables. When an author is presenting a new analysis, it is usually based on original data as well as data from other sources. Again, the reader tends to examine these pieces of data carefully and, indeed actively. It's not uncommon for key data points to be highlighted and notes scribbled in the margin.

Compare this experience to watching a video on PBS or the History Channel. Even though the videos may be based on meticulous research, the assumption is that the audience is in a more passive mode. A few key sources or researchers may be mentioned, but rarely is an extensive "bibliography" given. The important data may be presented (often graphically), but rarely an entire table. A viewer who is interested may, ironically, need to visit the text-based Web site to find the information.

Academic Prose As Hypertext?

Again, it is possible to include this information in a video in the appropriate location, but there is a bookmarking or indexing issue to consider. Suppose you want to find a particular table or topic in a textbook or academic book, what would happen? The table of contents is fine, but in a lot of cases, the reader may refer to the more detailed index.

Similarly, if research paper refers to a citation or another section of the paper, the reader will next begin flipping pages until the correct reference is reached (then flip back). In other words, most academic prose is built on a hypertext model in which the text refers to different portions within the same document (internal links) as well external documents in the bibliography (external)

The genius of hypertext with linking is that tedious page flipping is replaced by the click of a mouse button. It's no accident that Web 1.0 was invented at a major research facility (i.e. CERN). Academics have been dying for links for decades. I can very easily imagine constructing a thesis on a wiki or content management system.

What about video though? I would say that video is generally a sequential which is (currently) not easily searchable unless bookmarks are manually inserted or unless a text transcript is included.

Recommendations

So where are we? I would say that if if video is to replace the traditional research papers, I would ask my students for the following

  • Bookmarks for each section (not just chapter, but chapter and subsection)
  • Index for tables, and maybe even for keywords (linked to time cues naturally). A separate text transcript could also be very useful here.
  • Bibliography in the credits of course but also a way to display embedded citations and footnotes...perhaps in a separate track.

FYI - I'm not envisioning that students would need to hunt down time marks, but rather that it would become common place to annotate video at the appropriate locations.

Is this doable? I think so, but I think there is another challenge to overcome and that is differentiating academic discourse from "digital storytelling". But that will have to wait for another blog entry...