Production as Plug-in: Considerations for Teaching Production Skills in Non-Production Courses

CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 1 (2) Spring/Summer 2013
 Brett Boessen
 Austin College


When considering assigning a video essay in a non-production course, certain logistical questions inevitably arise: how much production skill can I assume students have, and how much will I need to teach them? For that matter, how much will I have to learn myself? What is the best approach to providing the skill development needed to produce a competent video essay, i.e., one that facilitates the learning I envision for the assignment?  In this essay, I address each of these questions in turn.

Expectations of student familiarity

A basic core of four clusters of production skills offer students the tools to produce a competent video essay: recording, editing, importing/exporting/sharing, and ripping. Given the availability of cameras of all kinds and their increasingly central role in contemporary everyday life, it is reasonable to expect today that all students have used a camera to record video and audio, many students will have edited video, and many will know how to import and export pre-made or existing materials into a video editor, but only a few students will be familiar with how to capture or rip existing materials from the web (such as YouTube videos) or from DVDs.

This range of familiarity will directly affect your planning. If you are asking your students to create their own video from scratch (like this student of mine did), then you can be fairly confident that no additional student learning will be required to produce it.  However, if you ask your students to develop a nuanced argument about a complex media text like Grand Theft Auto IV (as these students did for a class assignment for TreaAndrea M. Russworm), there is only a very small chance, essentially none, that the entire class will have all the knowledge necessary to do this on the day the video essay is assigned. Thus, in most cases, you will need to plan for some kind of production skill training “plug-in” in conjunction with your assignment, including assessment of your own knowledge.

Assessing your own facility and comfort with media production

A lack of production experience does not negate your ability to assign a video essay. Especially if student-driven learning is a pedagogical framework you are comfortable with, you may need very little personal knowledge of core production skills to facilitate your students’ video essays.  However, fewer approaches will be available to you if you lack familiarity with these skills. You should therefore consider what kind of time you are willing to devote to facilitating student learning of production skills relative to the time you already devote to facilitating their learning of existing material in the syllabus. Honestly assessing your availability will help keep you grounded and motivated when things don’t go precisely the way you had hoped or planned.

Possible approaches to facilitating student acquisition of core production skills

I consider seven distinct approaches briefly below, each of which is followed by a link to one or more examples of existing media assignments that incorporate them:

Prep exercises/assignments: Assign students to complete smaller video projects, perhaps using existing or previously created raw materials, that they must submit before they can submit the final video. This is a time-intensive approach, as it requires preparation on your part to design each separate assignment or piece of the larger project.  However, because core production skills can be broken apart into discrete steps (and assessed separately), students can more effectively scaffold those skills together into a coherent final product.

  • In this podcast assignment by Tony Nadler, groups produce a screencast showcasing an element of the audio editing software Audacity that will be helpful for their classmates in producing their own podcast.
  • In this syllabus by Paula Petrik, students are given a series of scaffolding-type assignments that help them practice their skills before their final project that incorporates them.

In-class workshops: Schedule some class time to address core skills, work on short exercises, and highlight helpful resources like online tutorials and user fora or wikis.  Unlike Prep Assignments, this approach makes a clearer separation for students between new production skill-training and existing course material (the familiar “studies”/”production” split), which may be useful for you.  However, it is also time-intensive, and it may force you to make choices between workshops and existing course material.

  • In this course of mine (see Schedule tab), time is built into the course most weeks for media production workshops.
  • In-class workshops figure similarly in this syllabus from Jentery Sayers.

Additional (out-of-”class”) workshops: Schedule one or two meeting times (optional or required) in the syllabus, during which you can address core production skills.  This is essentially the same approach as In-class Workshops, but the work of developing core production skills is off-loaded outside standard class time.  You are taking additional time to work closely with students on developing their production skills, but you aren’t sacrificing class time to do it.  This is probably most effective for instances in which you are substituting a video essay for an existing assignment in a course you have taught several times and whose syllabus is set in place.

  • In this syllabus from USC’s Institute for Media Literacy program, a separate demo is offered for a key piece of software.
  • In this syllabus by Kathy E. Gill, students interested in producing an audio podcast instead of a presentation can request additional meeting time.

Exemplars: Provide opportunities, either through collective screening or as homework, to view relevant video essays that can help anchor students’ thinking about what constitutes a competent example of the form.  This requires that you research existing video essays so you can assign them and lead students through consideration of their salient features, their successes and their failures.  Of all the approaches, this may be the least sufficient for helping students achieve a desired level of competency, since it is one thing to identify why something succeeds or fails, but another to be able to competently reproduce it oneself. However, it can be a powerful means to help students understand what you are asking of them, especially with video essays, since the form is still fairly uncommon in the popular culture with which students are most familiar.

  • In this Cinema Journal dossier essay by TreaAndrea M. Russworm, students were asked to collect good examples of video game walkthroughs and link to them on the class wiki, which was then used as a resource when they made their own.

Peer Learning: Identify and enable those students who do have additional production experience or knowledge to tutor their fellow classmates. This can take a great deal of pressure off you as the sole source of their learning.  However, there are at least two issues to be aware of. First, not every class, especially small ones, will have someone who is capable (or willing) to take on this role. Second, students do not inherently hold the same values for learning that you do, so some kind of incentive structure, whether that is extra credit, a public word of thanks, or something else, can draw out otherwise unwilling peer tutor/trainers.

Faculty-guided Self-Learning: Direct individual students to materials they can use to self-educate themselves about core production skills.  Share with them what is expected for their assignment, and then get them started with some links to effective tutorials and/or user fora or wikis. This allows you to spend almost no class time and relatively little prep time (only that which is required to research effective tutorials) dealing with production skill development.  It also mitigates the potential for wandering student attention somewhat (when compared to Simple Self-Learning).  However, there can remain significant room for students to veer off course before their projects come in, and you are likely to receive many more questions about the materials you provide, especially the first few times you assign them.

Simple Self-Learning: Explain what you expect, as you would with a traditional written assignment, and expect students to learn the necessary core skills on their own. This may sound like an abdication of your role as teacher or facilitator, but in some cases it can work very effectively.  Because of the ubiquitous availability of various kinds of beginner resources (websites, YouTube tutorials, etc.), it may not be unreasonable to ask students to simply find their own way.  You will gain a considerable amount of time over other approaches, and students may even develop a degree of independence through the process.  However, there is obviously a concern that without sufficient guidance, students will either spend unnecessary additional time researching the necessary skills, or worse, will spend such time on ultimately fruitless (for your assignment) skills.  I recommend only using this approach if the assignment itself has relatively few steps and/or is not particularly complex (see the GIF assignment below).

  • In this remix assignment by Jacquelyn Arcy, groups create a remix of an existing pop culture artifact (apparently on their own).
  • For this GIF assignment of mine, students received very little in-class instruction aside from the assignment and encouragement to Google “GIF maker.”

Finally, not only can each of these approaches be helpful in facilitating your students’ learning, but they can be combined in a number of different ways as well (e.g., in the comment on the podcast assignment by Tony Nadler above, he discusses his use of in-class workshops and exemplars as additional approaches used to assist his students).  You will want to experiment with these approaches in several combinations before you settle on one that works best for you.

Thus, the “best” approach to “plugging in” production skill development is the one that fits best with your goals for your students’ learning. Begin by asking yourself what your goals for the assignment itself are and how those goals fit into the context of your goals for the course. If you are most interested in using a video essay as an opportunity for your students to become familiar with non-text modes of communication, you will likely formulate a different approach than if you want your students to develop real facility with video essay production or if you want them to be able to build upon core skills in order to produce something more complex in the future. Assessing such goals will help you see more clearly which elements of the production learning process are most important for you.


Brett Boessen is Associate Professor of Media Studies at Austin College.  He is a media studies generalist, facilitating students’ learning in criticism and production across a range of visual and digital networked media.  His work is heavily motivated by scholarship of teaching and learning with new media tools and practices.

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2 Responses to Production as Plug-in: Considerations for Teaching Production Skills in Non-Production Courses

  1. tony says:

    Thanks, Brett for this very helpful breakdown of different approaches to addressing this challenge.

  2. aahinck says:

    Great article! I love the idea of combining these approaches!

    Do you have any recommendations for how to encourage simple self-learning on some aspects (like making GIFs or screen shots) while also providing in-class workshops (like an iMovie demo) for other aspects of media production? Any suggestions for how I can set that up in class without seeming contradictory?

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