Lights, Camera, Action! Student digital media resources at Yale

Erin Scott, head of the Bass Media Equipment Checkout Service (BMEC) started off this spring’s Teaching with Technology Tuesdays (TwTT) series with a talk on digital media resources at Yale. Although art and filmstudents have access to the Digital Media Center for the Arts, and instructors can get help with media in teaching from the instructional technology group (ITG), the expanding media services of Bass Library offer all students access to both the equipment and training they need to complete basic digital projects.

What’s Digital Media and Why Use it?

While initially the BMEC lent some film based equipment, those items have been phased out. Why? Erin points out that it is the versatility and durability of digital media equipment that makes it desirable. With few or no moving parts and card or hard disk based storage systems, digital equipment can store massive amounts of data reliably. A student can then use one multi-function device or multiple specialized devices to combine photos, graphics, audio, and video, to engage in “digital storytelling,” the term for the use of digital media to convey ideas and messages in organized story form.

While some students and instructors will be excited to experiment with new ways to present ideas and research, others might question the benefit of digital media projects over traditional essays and papers. This concern is valid, and must be evaluated in the light of each specific case. In general, however, digital media has several advantages over text-only content. One of the most prominet is that it represents a modern approach to analysis, allowing viewers and listeners to access experiences that simply cannot be conveyed fully through text. There can also be forms of creativity showcased in a media presentation that are distinct from the creative process of essay writing, and video in particular allows a very literal form of multi-perspective analysis. The final reason has to do with culture – tech is sexy. With more information coming from audio and video sources, students want to gain fluency in digital media.

Connecting Students to Digital Media – Equipment and Training

In order to give students access to digital media resources, the BMEC program, and its supporting Bass Media Techs (BMTs) provide equipment, consultation, and basic hardware and software training, to students who are engaging in both personal and academic media projects, although priority is given to academic tasks. Currently the service is managed by Erin, who oversees 2 student managers and 17 dedicated media techs. All dedicated media employees are trained in the use of the equipment in the rental catalog, can answer very basic questions at the circulation desk, and can be paired with patrons for consultations with an appointment. In order to guarantee that students can have access to equipment as long as the library is open, all 50 Bass circulation employees are trained in the circulation, albeit not the use, of the equipment in the media catalog.

The volume of support staff hints at the large, and growing, size of the equipment collection. The articles being circulated include digital SLR cameras, digital camcorders, studio microphones, audio recorders, and writing tablets, among other popular, often pricey, items. Until checked out, media technology remains in a locked area behind the Bass circulation desk, which is the primary point of service for the BMEC program. Although students can make reservations “on the fly” at the desk, the BMEC program is constantly operating near capacity, and it is strongly recommended that students reserve equipment well in advance through the online reservation system at weke.its.yale.edu/bass. Answers to frequently asked questions, including the possibility for extended reservations under special circumstances, can also be found online at clc.yale.edu/bass-media-faq. Although the program is free, the high volume of circulation (over 250 per month) makes on-time returns crucial, and the penalty for being late is $35 per item per day. This keeps projects moving on time even at the end of semesters, when equipment reservations must be made weeks in advance.

Even if a student has placed a reservation long enough in advance, and has a good conception of what he or she needs it for, the hardest part of project is still ahead – using the equipment properly and mastering the final product. In order to help with this the BMEC has just launched an “Experts” program, where students can schedule a consultation with a BMT who has mastered a particular area of digital media. After setting up an appointment by emailing bassmedia@yale.edu, they can speak with a BMT who has become an expert in a relevant area of hardware or software. Currently consultations are available in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, Final Cut, iLife Suite, and all hardware. Experts gain their position by demonstrating ability with a minimum 20 hour self designed project. For students who prefer to learn independently, the campus license for the Lynda.com training system allows people to set up accounts and learn from a video tutor how to use a wide variety of software, including media related packages.

Teaching with Digital Media

Even when both students and instructors are enthusiastic about using digital media in the classroom, a successful project depends not only on the mastery of technology and software, but also on a well designed assignment. There are many types of project that can be assigned depending on the course being taught. History students may learn from making a documentary-like slideshow, music students may be tasked with developing an audio podcast, and business students can practice their creative presentation skills using a video project. Successful media projects can also be disseminated through a number of channels, from DVDs to screencasts and websites. The common denominator for all media projects, however, is planning by both educator and student. It is easy to underestimate the time required to produce even a short media project – beginners will spend on average seven minutes editing video for every one minute they spend filming, and when all phases of the project are considered it can take up to two hours of work to produce every minute of final product.

Since digital media projects can take so much time to complete, optimal results are achieved when students and instructors have realistic expectations, engage in careful planning, and break the project into smaller graded chunks. There are many tools available to help first-time media producers estimate how long different steps will take. For instructors, the CLC offers resources to help plan and grade successful projects at the Digital Media Teaching Resources Page. This includes a sample digital assignment rubric which suggests how to identify and weigh different parts of a project. Both instructors and students can benefit from a time estimate for the different phases of  production, and there are a number of such project estimators online. One recommended service comes from the University of Delaware indicates how much time a student can expect to spend on each step of a project, based on type of project and length of final product.  Checklists and rubrics can be used to keep students on the projected schedule, and using class “showcases” is an effective tactic to encourage students to perform at their best since their work will be seen and judged (but not graded) by peers.

Planning is important at all phases. Storyboarding and scriptwriting can be difficult processes, but completing these steps early allows for an evaluation of the feasibility of a project. Students should have a backup plan from the beginning in case their first idea just doesn’t work. Reservations for equipment should also be made long in advance since shelves can empty quickly as final deadlines approach. Even if the best equipment stocked by BMEC is available, however, that does not always mean that it is the equipment best suited to any given project. An expert consultation, scheduled by emailing bassmedia@yale.edu, can help a student figure out what kind of equipment they need, how to use it, how long the project might take, what software is needed, and other common media related questions. Equipment is not all plug and play, and a meeting with an expert in advance can save hours of work caused by a simple mistake.

With planning and proper communication of expectations digital media can unleash the creativity of students. Although the complexity of projects must obviously be evaluated in terms of the amount of time allotted for completion (students can accomplish much more in a semester-long task than a shorter assignment), and can be submitted in many different ways – from DVD to YouTube to ClassesV2, multimedia stories can be used to powerfully express ideas that are traditionally relegated to the world of print reports and oral presentations. An example comes from the University of Alabama’s undergraduate business program, where students used the imagery of Forrest Gump to propose a business model. The internet is full of resources to help brainstorm and implement a creative media project, including the CLC’s resource page and a wiki collection of over 50 tools useful in relating a story using media. As Yale’s resources expand, and the role of media in communication continues to increase, now is an excellent time to consider planning and implementing media projects as part of a class curriculum.

For full coverage of this session, please click the video below
(note a slight delay upon initial playback):

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