Education & Teaching

Finding my faculties!

I recently meet a professional friend for lunch who last year gained a post as lecturer in the Engineering Faculty at my local University. I’ve had involvement myself with the Creative Arts faculty at the University helping out with sessions for the media practice department involving mostly Media Studies graduates, post and Masters.

My friend now lecturers in the Music Technology Department, although the course should really be called “Audio Recording Technology” simply because of the wide range of subject matter and equipment covered. They are learning not just about recording music, but about all audio recording genres, even putting together Radio Plays, working from script to finished piece including having to gather and record all their sound effects as well as laying down the performed script.

As an ‘Audio’ professional myself, when I started my career in the BBC I very much benefited from experiencing all the different skills involved across the board in sound engineering. From covering a classical concert, to dubbing a natural history programme, from documentary recording to outside broadcasts. All the skills learned in one area were transferable and enhanced another.

As multimedia pervades so much of what we do today, any media skills learned in one area are easily transferable to another. This is also obviously the case with Audio Recording Technology and Media Practice, there is a lot of very similar subject matter and the same equipment is used by both courses/faculties. I’m sure if I delved deeper into the University course subjects and the faculties I could find many subjects to add to the ‘media’ list.

Yet each faculty seemed to be operating like two very different and competing companies, not two parts of the same University. No facilities, equipment or expertise are shared, everything is simply duplicated.

Not only that, the approach of both faculties is also very different. My experience of the Creative Arts faculty is that there is a great divide between academic and technical, the lecturers are the academics (the artistics) and the media practice instructors (given a lower grade) are the technicals! Even thought I think one or two of the instructors could teach media studies better than some of the academics!!!
And my friends’ post vividly points up the difference in approach of the two faculties. He is a “Professional Lecturer”. He is hands on technical, employed because of his professional experience to teach the academic through the practical out working of the subject. He’s no less academic than the Media Studies Lecturers but sets and instructs on practical projects making sure the students know how to use the gear to achieve their artistic and academic aims and therefore not only get a good degree, but be set with the right skills to work in their desired career.

Media now pervades a lot of subjects and Universities are under great pressure to save money. If there was a bit of joined up thinking, not only could they save money, but also by creating a unified multi-media resource of professional people and equipment the reputation and educational standards of the University would go through the roof!!!

But then again engineering has nothing to do with Creative Arts does it????

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Telling a good story

I visited a local University and I took a full days ‘Visiting Professional’ session for 3rd years, entitled a ‘Master class on location recording’ (their title not mine!).  A chance not only to learn at bit more about film/program making, but also find out a little more about the industry from someone who works in it, before they start to look for a job next summer. I had just nine attend from a course of 72!!! And one guy was an hour and a half late and just walked as if it didn’t matter!

The problem?  It was deemed a technical session and not promoted by the academic staff, so therefore the students felt no need to attend. The attitude is that the only time they need to attend a ‘technical session’ is when they what to borrow equipment and are told they have to attend a particular session first.

I find it hard to understand this attitude when to practice any art, you need to understand the tools of the craft?  Why don’t the students see the need to learn how to use the media equipment?

Most of the students on this course for their final year project chose to make a video documentary.  They’ve had some great ideas, but the execution of the project most of the time doesn’t make the most of the idea – so what’s the problem?

There’s fundamentally a missing point. Although a good story is important, by far the most fundamental media skill to learn is how to tell a story – it’s the story telling that’s most important, it’s what the media is about, it’s not actually the story itself!  If you tell a non-descript story well, it has the potential to be a good program. On the other hand a good story told badly will simply make a bad program and is a waste of a good story.  yet the fundamental stress of the media studies department is that by far the most important thing in media is the narrative – the story itself.

A good book is good because of the writing skill of the author, not necessarily because of the story itself, as it’s the way the story is told that captivates and holds the reader.  Whilst the original story maybe good, if it’s told badly you’re not going to finish the book – you may even put it down within a few pages and the story will remain untold.

If you tell a story in multimedia using video and sound, it’s the way you use the video and sound to produce the program that tells the story, again it’s the story telling that captivates and holds the viewer.

As an artist discovers how to use his paints and brushes, a media creative needs to learn how to use their cameras, microphones and lights to achieve the best artistic result and tell a story. I have a professional photographer friend who can simply pick up a camera and take a stunning photograph - he knows how to use the camera to achieve the artistic effect he wants and tell his story in picture form.  If he didn’t know how to use the camera he won’t be able to achieve his artistic result.

Story telling needs to become the emphasis in media studies and the use of sound and light in telling that story. When this happens students will realise they need to know how to use the equipment in order to tell the narrative the way it deserves to be told.

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LED lighting

Health and safety are obviously major considerations in the practice of media within education, be it trying to get some naive student to simply think about where they’re going to set up a tripod (i.e. not in the road) or perhaps to consider the risk level of a particular location we’ve chosen to shoot in (swimming pool??).

Of all the Health and safety considerations the equipment that causes the most concern and risk must be lighting.  240v, live cables trailing everywhere to trip over, those cables attached to heavy lights high on stands to tip over and finally that’s not taking into account a few thousand kilowatts of heat to burn hands and set things on fire!

Taking into account these concerns I was impressed to see a new type of ’studio’ lighting.  We’ve all now got used to LED torches, which have now become the norm over normal bulbs, but seriously considering LED’s replacing powerful and accurate studio lighting (rather than a simple tiny torch bulb) is an altogether different consideration.


I was delighted then to see a demonstration of a new 12 inch square LED light panel.  They come in various models and types, the basic models come in either Daylight or Tungsten available in either different angle spot or flood.  One of the problems I’ve seen in the past with any LED light is the production of lots of circles of light, rather than any consistent light spread, but there was no evidence of this, just a even spread of  light - how do you get a 15º spot from a flat panel I don’t know?  Having a daylight temperature light without having to use gel is very useful.  I measured the daylight output and it was about equivalent to a standard tungsten 300 watt light with blue gel.   On a light meter the tungsten measured 3210k, which I’m told is actually within the tolerance of the meter itself!!  -  Not bad!   There are other models available with over 3 times the light output of these models - although I’ve obviously not seen them yet.

Each light has a built-in dimmer knob on the rear and DMX control socket - so both a dimmer and full DMX lighting control built in!  Also there on the back is the 12v professional XLR 4 pin socket.  It comes with a 12v mains adaptor, but will run a good number of hours on a battery - there is an adaptor option available to attach to the back of the light to take a camera battery should you need it.  My thought was a good lead acid battery on a longish lead would make a good stand alone light and if the battery was attached at the bottom of the stand, it would act as a lighting stand ballast, making the whole thing hard to knock over.  Having said that the light itself only weighs just over 2kg.

Of the lights I saw, perhaps the most useful and impressive was the model called the ‘Bi-colour’.  It was a little more expensive than the stand light, but on the rear was a second knob, where you could change the colour temperature of the light from tungsten all the way though to daylight and anything in between!  Again no gels in sight!  Very useful if you turn up to shoot in a room with mixed tungsten and daylight coming in through windows and you can dial in the exact colour temperature of the room at that time and even adjust as the sun comes down!  Again available in either spot or flood.

Don’t ask me how this is done, but there is also an adjustable focal length version in either tungsten or daylight colour temperature.  Models are either 15º to 30º spot or 30º to 50º flood or a full 15º spot to 50º flood.

On the health and safety front these lights make a huge case against the normal tungsten lights and well worth considering for studios or for use by students on location. A very safe option and ‘cool’ option!

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Creating Character Creates Confidence

Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's 'Alice In Wonderland'

Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's 'Alice In Wonderland'

YouTube is full of fantastic amateur films, where people invent stories or portray outlandish spoofs of seminal TV or cinema moments. What it reveals is that digital technology is extremely democratic, and that playing a ‘character’ is hugely liberating.

Having run numerous camera and drama workshops for students and adults, I know that using digital technology creatively, can unlock certain individuals and reveal a confidence that was previously lacking. So how can we use audio-visual equipment not only to create and share information, but also to build confidence and communication skills?

Perhaps the answer lies in ‘character’, in not having to be oneself. From the moment we master language, we make up stories and pretend to be other people. However, as we get older, we become more self-conscious, especially in our teenage years, which is why drama is so important. It gives us licence to play, to explore and experiment, and above all it enables us to escape from being ‘me’. Moreover, it requires imagination, empathy and communication, important life skills that need to be developed if we are to have a successful ‘knowledge economy’, at the centre of which sits digital technology.

When playing a character, one has the chance to step outside of oneself, and explore the situation and motivation of someone else. The character might be fictitious, or a real person (historical or contemporary). What is important is that we understand how to create a character, and set them within a clear scenario, and like a lot of tasks, it’s all in the preparation.

Any drama teacher will understand the theories developed by Stanislavski, which set out a process for creating a character. In simple terms, you begin by considering the background of the character, and how this has moulded who they are today. Thereafter, there is a list of questions that need to be answered: Who am I? Where am I? What do I want? Why do I want it? How am I going to achieve it?

Next consider, is your character high or low status, and how does this impact on how they communicate, physically and verbally with others?

This process not only encourages a real engagement with the character, it also builds confidence as it gives the ‘actor/student’ a framework within which to carry out role-play or other communication assignments. Once you have researched and understood the motivation of your character, it is far easier to improvise, trust to your imagination, and use the appropriate language to communicate your ideas and objectives.

It’s at this point that I would get out the camera and record the performance. Although people often freeze when a lens is pointing straight at them, actively playing a ‘character’ is far more liberating, and whereas we all usually hate seeing or hearing ourselves, watching our ‘character’ is one step removed and an experience we are usually happy and confident to share with others.

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Exams - Are they worth it????

I made a poor start with the head of Media Studies at my local school. The school has Technology and Media Arts Special status and it was my first meeting with him and he obviously wanted to impress. I can’t remember the exact figures he gave me, but some of his very first words to me were his proud boast that last year they’d achieved an above average exam score. He was a little taken aback by my lack of response.

Every year seems to set another record of ‘A’s and ‘A*’s in exams, but how much worth does an exam result have when so many other students (degree or A level), have the same seemingly impressive results? What makes your students stand apart from the rest in the race to be employed somewhere and expound their art?

I had an interesting conversation with the ‘Product design’ head of department of my son’s University.  He said to us he actually doesn’t like taking in straight ‘A’ students as they don’t tend to complete the course and aren’t usually practical enough to make it either on the course or in the jobs they eventually get – which obviously then reflects on the university!

The education system is very academically orientated - there’s a whole other debate as to whether media studies is a academic or vocational subject. But, there is so much weight given to the quality of exam results and statistic tables (academic achievement), that a lot of schools/Universities have lost sight of their primary aim, that is to help the student achieve their best potential, not simply the best exam results. Exam results can be achieved by just teaching how to best past exams – I’ve heard students quite often complaining that there were parts of the exam they’d just sat where they actually hadn’t been taught that particular part of the subject – teachers concentrating on certain core parts of the subject so they get good marks, but missing out whole sections of the subject.

So what is the important part in a media studies course?   The answer has to be not the ’studies’ part , but the ‘media’ bit – the students project work is the thing that will not only show their future talent, but also separate them from the myriad of others with the exam same grades, especially when it comes to the real world job interview. The main criteria any employer will give you regarding a new employee is the need for talent. We’ve all heard stories of people who’ve made it the real world who we’re written off at school – usually because they didn’t do very well at exams! We need to give the students the opportunities to express their talents to the full - with our guidance help develop those talents and help build a strength of character that will help them through life, not just an exam.

Within Media Studies we need to have the facilities and expertise to allow the students to create project work of a standard that will allow this to become the start of their future career portfolio.  Some years ago the statistics were that the Universities produced over 4,000 media studies graduates a year, for just 120 found jobs available in the Media Industry.   If your students are going anywhere in the media, they have to have that supporting project work, exam results are not enough!

Although it is changing, I still come up against the attitude that since I didn’t take a 3 year degree course some 30 years ago (which would actually have been in a completely unrelated subject), I’m not worth considering as a expert in media studies, even though I spent 4 year gaining a HNC in electronics and computing and obviously have 30 years knowledge gained from a generous experience working in the media.

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Mac or PC??????

It’s the age old question fervently fought over by passionate enthusiasts on either side!!stevejobsbillgatessmall

It pits one man against another - well two in particular!!!

So which man do you believe in then???   Which one has the better machine for a multimedia based education platform?

The only thing to do is weight up each platform, so let’s start by looking at the equipment provided by Mr. Gates:-

  • The PC’s main advantage is that it’s cheap.
  • You can build it from cheap parts if you require a specific type of machine.
  • It’s completely customizable, build the machine to suit its use, install the custom software you require.
  • As well as hardware there’s a myriad of software available for it.
  • Everyone has one, the world uses it, so it’s familiar to most students.
  • The IT department love them because they can play with them to their hearts content - it gives them a reason for being!

Mr Job’s offering is a very different animal and approach to computing.  Now, I’ve used both computers over a good many years and still use a PC , so here are my list of Mac advantages.

  • The Mac’s hardware is designed with it’s software in mind - it’s truly plug and play - you’re not on the internet trying to find drivers all the time.
  • It’s software is integrated - open iMovie to edit video and itunes provides your sounds and iphoto your stills.
  • You don’t need third party apps to burn a DVD.
  • You can migrate third party software from one mac to another, you don’t have to reinstall.
  • You have most multimedia software as standard.
  • You won’t need the constant attention of the IT department.
  • It’s not virus prone.
  • Open the box - it works!

Now it sounds like I’m biased here, but that’s because I am!  As I’ve said I’ve used both PC and Mac for a good while.  Yes a Mac is expensive initially, but……. it’s all there to run your media based courses at the beginning - no video capture card and software to buy and fit, and drivers to find because it doesn’t quite work with the PC motherboard.

From the moment you plug in the firewire from your camera, to the moment you burn your finished DVD, it’s already there and integrated so one programme talks to another - no leaving one programme and then having to work out how to get your material into another.

Getting a PC to work on a wireless network for instance has always seemed to be hit and miss.  My Macbook Pro picks up the networks so well,  I don’t even notice.

One of the most positive things I can say for the case of Mac over PC that will interest you is work flow.  I’ve literally found the amount of multimedia work I can do to be quicker with a Mac.  Be it in the architecture or the way the programmes work together, I can simply get more done - an important thing to consider when you’re thinking about your students project work.

I’d be very interested to hear your opinions and experiences???


The Contentious Issue of Copyright!

copyright_symbol1Do you use recordings of television and radio programmes in the classroom? Does your limited budget mean that you cannot afford to buy resources? Instead, do you download music and film clips from the web, copy DVDs or photocopy texts? Do you file share with colleagues in other schools/institutions/countries? Do your students use Internet material in their project work?

Many normal activities both inside and outside the classroom depend on the use of literature, music, film and art, in their many manifestations. Often these works are protected by copyright, and those who created them are dependent upon being paid for the use of their works for their livelihood. After all, the creative industries make a valuable contribution to the economy of our country and employ a substantial part of our workforce.

File sharing is not necessarily illegal, even if the works being shared are covered by copyright. For example, some artists may choose to support freeware, shareware, open source, or anti-copyright, and advocate the use of file sharing as a free promotional tool. However, you need to be aware of how legislation affects the use of images, audio and moving images taken from the Internet and other sources. Websites and VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) are elaborate notice boards, full of text and images, with content usually provided by staff, students and parents. If they include material from other sites or providers without permission, they could be in serious trouble. For example, photographers and photo agencies can use specially designed software to trace their pictures, and alert them when it appears on the Internet. If prior permission from the publisher to use their material has not been gained, then there could be a breach of copyright and action maybe taken.

The confusion for many may come from thinking that a lot of digital content is all right to use under the ‘education’ umbrella. This may well be the case within the classroom as part of a lesson or student study, but when that content is used on websites, VLEs, or as part of a swapped lesson plan, then teachers are facilitating the free re-distribution of those images.

My own company provides school site licenses as part of the cost of a resource. This means that the school can use the digital content on every computer/whiteboard and photocopy worksheets for every student. BUT sharing any of that content outside a school by whatever means, is an infringement of copyright.

The educational resource content market is driven by small companies how can suffer greatly in income from illegal coping, and if these producers of quality educational resources go out of business what is education left with? - Poor quality inappropriate materials and a waste of valuable teacher time, struggling to produce their own. These days students are sophisticated consumers of content, so if given poor content, poor work is the outcome.

Each educational establishment is responsible for adhering to copyright licenses, and that means every teacher/lecturer may be culpable. Many exploit existing material by copying, sharing and making derivative works. You may think you are teaching with well illustrated with digital content, but the lesson learnt by pupils might be about unethical practice and pirating.

AND it’s not just about third party content – how protected is your original content? Resources you have worked on for hours and put on the website or intranet, free for anyone else to capture and use without your permission?

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Should Media Come Under English Or Creative Arts?

Traditionally literacy could be defined as the ability to decode, understand and communicate in print. As the world evolves and electronic media usurps print as the dominant format, there is an essential need to be media literate.

Understanding how to access, analyse, evaluate and create in a wide variety of media modes is essential in order to be functionally literate. So where does the responsibility lie within the curriculum?

Let’s first look at the relationship between media studies and media literacy. Media Studies is the organised study of media, whereas media literacy is the outcome – the skill of experiencing, analysing and making media products.

Creative Arts best bring together multi-disciplinary forms of creative expression and so surely, multi-media production must lie within this faculty? But in order to produce content, students need to understand how media conveys ideas, informs, entertains and persuades.

Before creating content, media education should encourage students to probe the world of media. What is the message, who is it for and why? Skills of critical analysis may best be learned through inquiry-based classes such as English, rather than from creating and producing one’s own media.

Surely critical thinking skills must be a key educational priority. If students learn to ask the right questions the result will be a lifelong empowerment of the learner and the citizen. Media literacy is about understanding that media is constructed to convey ideas, and therefore we need to be able to identify the techniques and conventions that are used to influence and inform.

But, back to traditional print literacy. We wouldn’t describe someone as literate if they could only read but not write. The two go hand in hand, the ‘doing’ is an essential part of being literate. We might not all be film makers but we should not have a passive relationship to media - creating multi-media texts, visual, sound and print is an essential skill in order to be media literate.

So, should media be seen as a cross-curricular discipline drawing for example on social sciences and the humanities, as well as English and the arts? And let’s not forget the question of how does media sit under the umbrella of the IT department?

Or is media just an expanded conceptualization of literacy? I look forward to your comments.

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