Friday, June 19, 2015

Cool Software Or Knowing How To Tell A Story?

In my Facebook News Feed this morning there was an ad for PowToon, a cartoon making software that has a free version to it, but really has a tiered pricing structure. In the old days, I would have put in substantial amount of time into playing with software like this and find out what it was capable of, making a few cartoons myself to put the technology through its paces.

I no longer have the energy to do this, even though I have a lot of time on my hands.  Part of this is definitely simply aging and having less oomph in all things as a consequence.  Another part, however, is lessons I learned from the last time I tried something like this. 

It began with this Mockumentary that I made eight years ago.  If you view it now you'll find the technology it demonstrated rather quaint.  I leave it to the reader to determine whether it is still really watchable.  At the time, I shared it with some friends and I got a positive reaction to it, though I will note it didn't get a very wide viewing, so they may have been humoring me more than anything else with their responses. 

It used Camtasia and PowerPoint.  The music was a midi version of the song converted to an MP3 and then inserted into a sound track in Camtasia.  All the images were found on the Web, either jpegs that were downloaded or screen shots of content found online.  I subsequently found even easier ways to produce the content.  My ultimate goal was to get students to make these sort of things as their project in my course.  In this the technology should empower the students, which is why ease in the production technique matters. 

As to the content of the piece, the key was finding a quote from Steve Jobs in talking about the Kindle.  He said it would fail because, "nobody reads anymore."  In retrospect it is hard to know if he was talking out of both sides of his mouth then or if changed his mind after the Kindle started to make headway.  It certainly seems that the iPad was response to the challenge the Kindle posed. 

In any event, I glommed onto that quote and particularly the word "nobody."  I found a New Yorker cartoon that had a picture of a nobody sitting around a table with a couple of others - somebodys.  And the music I chose was Your Nobody Till Somebody Loves You, which I also used as the punchline, so the video plays like something of a shaggy dog story.  Putting the pieces together, this focus helped to keep them connected.  Establishing some theme that carries through for the entire piece is necessary to turn the presentation into a story. 

A year later I had students make something similar in a course I taught for campus honors students.  I had some students make something similar this past fall, as an extra credit project.  I do think doing projects of this sort has some long term value.  The thinking in making something like this is very similar to the sort of thinking needed in writing a good one pager, especially one that serves as executive summary for a longer document.

It may be harder to find an overall theme that can be easily represented and that encapsulates all the ideas in the presentation in that projects that the students work on than it was in my mockumentary.  But it also might be that students don't know how to find such a theme, even when one might be available. 

Instead of the dreaded six paragraph essay, the introductory rhetoric class should teach students how to tell a story.  Even if it did that, however, the students would need a lot of practice to get that lesson to stick.  Right now it seems they get neither the lesson nor the practice ahead of taking my class.  That makes me lukewarm on wanting to try this sort of thing again and the real reason why the technology doesn't grab me now.  Maybe an instructor with more energy than I have will try it and let us all know how it worked.

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