I should offer up a mea culpa at the outset. While I have done a fair amount of multimedia production, in some definition of the term – voice over in PowerPoint, screencasts, talking head videos, that sort of thing, I’ve never done any substantial editing of multimedia content nor have I ever acquired multimedia media content by doing several takes of the same presentation as one would do in making a movie. Sometimes that limitation in my experience makes me feel under qualified to do my job, because the issue is coming up big time now about developing that sort of skill set in our students as the 21st Century equivalent of teaching students how to write, and truthfully I’m not sure how I feel about it other than that I know it makes me somewhat uncomfortable to voice my opinion on this topic in the absence of experiential knowledge.
Yesterday I had a coffee with my colleague Burks Oakley, he is really into podcasting now, and he told me that using Audacity he does the type of post recording editing that I’ve never done and indeed he does multiple takes on the audio recording in the sense that if he stumbles on something he will do it again to get it right. I was impressed with his diligence. Obviously, Burks feels that the production value will translate into listener satisfaction with the podcasts and he is willing to put in the effort to achieve that end.
Today, at a meeting about our fledgling Learning Commons, the discussion turned to our new course called Writing with Video. Joe Squier, a faculty member in Art and Design and one of the pioneers behind this course, has said we want students to develop a multimedia communication capability and that is what we should aspire to in producing the next generation of our graduates. At one level this sounds right to me and it clearly is an inspirational vision. Many people have gotten quite excited about the Writing with Video project.
But on another level I’m afraid of this. Last night we had parent-teacher conferences at my kids’ middle school, the first one with my older son’s language arts teacher, who is also his home room teacher. We spent a little bit of time talking about the writing of other students in the class. The teacher reported many of them don’t write well at all because their knowledge of things is fuzzy and with fuzzy ideas it is hard to command the language that represents the ideas. On one level, this report is not surprising. My kids go to a public school in Champaign and while that school does well when compared to other schools around the state, all the hullabaloo about our schools not keeping up with the schools in the high performing countries of East Asia and Europe certainly should have prepared me for it. But at a different level, I think of most kids at that age (13 – 14) as bright and enthusiastic and hearing a teacher say that their ideas in the main are fuzzy is quite disturbing.
I have no clue with whether the kids this teacher is referring to, the peers of my son, are the type of kids who will attend the U of I or not. But, of course, not that long ago we were all discussing the Declining by Degrees documentary and if the thesis in that documentary is even approximately right, then it is not too much of a stretch to presume that many of the kids taking eighth grade language arts around the nation have fuzzy ideas and weak knowledge in many areas. One might surmise further that it is this weakness which is the source of the student disengagement in college (and likely disengagement earlier in their schooling).
I have no idea about how to rectify this problem with young adolescents. I can’t help but wonder, however, that if the problem is not addressed early on then we will be unable to teach communication in multimedia when these same students are in college. And if we insist on trying nonetheless, we’ll be seen as masking the lack of literacy rather than perceived as giving students the right education for the 21st century.
To this I want to add another dismal dimension to the issue. No Child Left Behind, in a school such as the one my kid attends, almost certainly is having the effect of dumbing down the curriculum and providing less enrichment than there was previously. (Tight school budgets are also a contributor.) So if the retort is that general literacy has always been an issue and that the kids who start attending the U of I in 5 years, when my kid should be a college freshmen, will be part of an elite that has bypassed the literacy issues, my response would be that if these kids are the products of public school education then in many cases we need to question their literacy, no matter how much innate smarts they have.
Is it fair of me to lay all this at the feet of Writing with Video? Surely not. But to make me feel comfortable about the notion of getting students able to communicate well with multimedia I’d like that to be built on top of a more traditional notion of how to communicate well in writing and speaking rather than as a substitute for it.