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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Creating digital video projects with bare-bones equipment

Guest writer: Ben Wildeboer

Last semester I had students create videos that creatively describe the families of elements despite a lack of much in the way of digital video hardware, software, or technical support. There were some challenges along the way, but overall I found the project to be a positive experience.

Why video?
I don't simply want students to learn a set of facts. I want students to engage with the material and demonstrate the ability to apply their knowledge to situations beyond traditional classroom assessments. I also wanted students to think of how they could simply and clearly communicate scientific information to non-scientific audience. The video format allowed for easy sharing (through TeacherTube or YouTube) and encouraged the concise and creative communication of ideas.

Bare minimums
  • Cameras. I have an older Flip video camera and a digital still camera that takes movies. I encouraged students to use their own cameras if they had them as well (many did). Despite having four times as many groups as cameras, students rarely had to wait to film.
  • Computers. I had a cart of 24 laptops available for my use, though it would have worked just as well if I only had one computer per group.
  • Software. I had students used Windows Movie Maker, which comes pre-installed on pretty much every Windows computer. Some students also used PowerPoint to create and edit still frames in their videos.
  • File converter. The version of MovieMaker on our student computers didn't recognize the AVI video files my cameras use, though I know in general MovieMaker should play nice with AVI files. The first time around I used Zamzar to convert the video files to the WMV format. Zamzar works great, but is pretty slow. Even worse, due to downloading restrictions on student computers, I had to do all the conversions on my computer. This semester I'm using Format Factory on my machine, which has worked just fine so far. If the version of MovieMaker installed on the student computers was up to date, there would've been no need for conversion at all.
  • Microphone. Several groups chose to narrate over their video. I had a cheapo $9.95 mic and a nicer USB headset mic. Students preferred the cheapo mic because the student computers often didn't recognize the USB device.
Challenges
  • Unforeseen conversion mess. The first time through, we had some pretty significant delays due to having to convert all the video files to the WMV format. I'm in the middle of the second time through this project right now, and I'm finding I'm much better prepared. Using Format Factory instead of Zamzar has helped cut down the wait time for file conversion and there seems to be much less frustration this time around.
  • Teaching the tool. I didn't spend time teaching students how to use MovieMaker. This was a purposeful move. I knew MovieMaker isn't overly complicated and the students were quite capable of figuring out a lot of its features on their own. I made a couple of quick screencasts going over the basics and provided links to other helpful screencasts. When a group had trouble with something, I would help that group and then have that group help any other groups experiencing similar problems.
  • My personal fear. I was pretty worried this whole project would crash and burn- especially considering my lack of experience with video and the bare-bones nature of my equipment. In the end, things turned out just fine, though the fear of the unknown is always something that can prevent us from trying out new ideas.
The results
They may not blow your mind, but I'm very happy with the final products:



Ben Wildeboer teaches 9th grade Integrated Science in Groton, CT. He can be found online at his blog (Sustainably Digital) and through Twitter (@WillyB).