Published: March 28, 2015

In 2012 a writing professor from CU Boulder and I co-hosted several teaching-with-multimedia workshops. Our audience was composed primarily of faculty from Colorado community colleges and our goal was to effectively walk attendees through the process of creating a working multimedia assignment. 

With any choices in how an assignment might be defined come cautions, opportunities, and considerations. To help our group see as many foreseeable variables as possible, we used a flowchart to give form to the process of creating a solid media-based assignment. Let's look at that presentation here, in checklist form.

The assignment

What, exactly, will you ask your students to do? A few considerations:

Service-learning or outreach; Having your class work for real clients can be a real pain... but worth the effort nonetheless. Knowing that their efforts will be both useful and durable can ignite students' motivation, whether they're working on short promotional videos or web-sites. The down-side, of course, is that the instructor can easily find him or herself in a project-manager role. And clients can easily forget that the primary aim of the project is learning; they can routinely overstep their boundaries and demand too much of the wrong things. Establish boundaries and expectations early on.

Student-designed poster promoting a non-profit theater

Figure1; A student-designed poster promoting a local non-profit cinema

Personal narrative; When students are asked to share a personal experience - an epiphany or a deeply disturbing  event, for instance - the results can be magical. Or predictable. The better projects I've seen were the result of a very challenging dialog between instructor and student.    

Call to action; Global warming, drunk driving, disappearing elephants - the world's a troubled place to be sure, but calling attention to a given cause can quickly fall into cliché. It's helpful to ask students "Who is your audience why would they care about this?" as they brainstorm their approaches. It's a fair question, and it should be at the forefront of every copy-writing, filming, editing, and delivery decision made.

A response to an artifact; Can you show us how The Things They Carried affected your views concerning the Viet Nam War? Can you make a three-minute video that emulates, in a scene from your everyday life, a film noir element as seen in Double Indemnity? Assignments like these can be ideal ways of getting students to look more deeply into the rhetorical powers of film and literature. But the chance that they'll turn in a video chockfull of 60's photos overlaid with a Credence Clearwater Revival soundtrack are high... unless you give them a very specific target. 

A documentary; Collect evidence that supports your point and convince us or collect evidence and convince yourself that there is a point. Both approaches to documentary filmmaking can be useful as a learning process.

Parodies, riffs, mash-ups, deconstructions; What if you used a Mythbusters approach to debunk a common scientific misconception? What if Michelangelo had had a Facebook page? Can you re-edit a short existing video so that it makes another point entirely? These assignment approaches have all been used successfully at CU Boulder. Students generally love the infusion of comedy, irony, and flat-out propaganda in their work. The trick, of course, is to keep the learning goals front and center.

Media choices

Will you have your students work with video, in print, online, or with social networks? Each medium comes with its own unique affordances and potential difficulties.

Video; It's easier to grade than a ten-page paper! And often more fun for students as well.
Some important considerations concerning video:

  • Keep it short. Three to five minutes maximum. We've always maintained that the labor-to-finished product ratio runs at or above 100-to-1, i.e., 100 minutes of shooting and editing for every minute of final content. And that's when everything works perfectly.  
  • Understand the difference between production values and great ideas. Many students will try to hide behind the lack of access to good equipment or the lack of technical skills when turning in sloppy work. Deal with this preemptively.
  • When students work in teams, don't let the techies run roughshod over the others. In video production particularly, the student with Final Cut Pro chops is well-positioned to take over the entire project, leaving the good ideas and hard work of others by the wayside. Deal with this preemptively as well.
  • Consider that your students will likely need some degree of basic training in using cameras, editing, and the like.

Audio; If you've found yourself transfixed by NPR's This I Believe audio essay series, you're not alone. A few things to remember about working with audio projects:

  • Writing for audio delivery is substantially different than simply writing. Remind your students that pacing, music, and sound effects can all work to make their projects richer.
  • Good audio recordings can be made in any acoustically flat environment; a clothes closet or a parked car (windows up, on a quiet side street, naturally) both make excellent "guerilla" recording studios.
  • As with video, students will likely need access to some level of basic training and equipment.

Print; As a means to efficiently and effectively inform and persuade, printed communications are still very much in the running. And it's surprising how often working professionals rely on print, whether it be in the form of academic posters, newsletters, ads and flyers, or reports. A few things to consider: 

  • While Adobe's InDesign might be the tool of choice for professional designers, PowerPoint certainly fills the bill for beginners. The application allows fluid composition without the steep learning curve of InDesign or the maddening stubbornness of Word.
  • Print design deserves to be printed. See if your department has any allowance for getting your students' work printed and, more critically, displayed in public spaces. 
  • Understanding the basics of print layout can be a big help in aiding your students in developing a "personal brand," a recyclable look-and-feel that, at once aesthetically pleasing and professional, can be used in resumes, presentations, and more.

Mixed Bag; A good question for your class: "What do you think would be the most effective way to deliver your message to your audience? Video? Radio spots? Social media?" Let your students make the determination on how to move their message. In many cases, they're already the experts, and the innovation that this type of freedom can engender might surprise you. It could also inform future assignments.

Class configuration

Will you ask your students to work individually? In teams? Let's talk about your options.

One class, one project; Ask your students to be Mad Men (sans martinis, of course!) for a semester, and turn your class into an agency. Several years ago, our group helped a writing class produce a host of media products for a men's wheelchair rugby team. Among other things, they churned out promotional videos, blogs, newsletters, podcasts, and player profiles. The results were breathtaking. 

Video 1; Promotional video for The Denver Harlequins, produced by a CU Boulder writing class

In devoting the whole of your class's efforts to a single project, there are a few considerations:

  • More than with any other class configuration, the one-class-one-project model throws you squarely into project manager mode.
  • Any weak link in the class division of labor can threaten the whole.

Teams, either self-selecting or designated; Students can either love or loathe working in teams, and in helping classes at CU Boulder, I've seen both - deep bonds and raging animosities are not unusual. I think instructors can moderate the situation somewhat, with a little knowledge up front:

  • Because student teams will be working with technology, it's likely that, within teams, their contributions will be weighted according to their software skills. This can be problematic. Students with marginal video-editing skills, for instance, can see their ideas pushed aside and forgotten.
  • Some faculty have met the problem of technology head-on by encouraging teams to form around "embedded gurus." For example, in a class of twenty students working on videos, there might be five students with iMovie experience. These students will be distributed among teams, ensuring that each team has an experienced editor. So far so good... until the whole of the project is dumped in the editor's lap the night before the project is due. The takeaway? Look under the hood of teamwork.

Individual work; Nothing new here, but there are a few thoughts to mull over:

  • Can your students farm certain aspects of their projects out? Let's say a student is doing an audio recording of his or her essay, but has a dreadful reading voice. Can he or she farm the reading out? Or maybe one of your students is documenting a large protest like Occupy Wallstreet. Can the student enlist friends for filming, using multiple cameras to fully cover the event? 
  • Pride is a powerful factor in doing good work. And working individually, for many, is the only real way to fully engage with a project.

Dealer's choice; Many instructors let their students choose how they'd prefer working. Beyond the grading issue, this can be a good solution to letting students create in ways in which they feel most comfortable.

Source material

Will you insist that every element in a student project be original? Will you tolerate, but discourage the use of "found" materials in your students' work? There are a ton of options here, with many hybrids in between.

Original material only; A way to push student inventiveness and creativity to the max. A few thoughts:

  • Though students will no doubt feel hemmed in by limiting their work to the use of original material, the outcomes can be quite spectacular. With a little prodding, they can make effective use of metaphor, symbolism, and hand-made artifacts to tell a story. Though the end-result can be very rough, the understanding of the mechanics of storytelling that comes with using a limited pallet can be well worth enforcing the original-materials stricture.
  • There are great tools like Apple's Garage Band that enable students to compose their own unique sound tracks. And other applications give creators the power to build stop-frame animations, special effects, and 3D models. Make your students aware of these, but remind them not to get hopelessly hung up on the frills This is a very common issue, by the way.
  • If interviews, actors, and private spaces are involved, let your students know that model releases, permissions-to-shoot, and other nettlesome details are all part of the mix. 

Found material; There's a world full of material to grab out there. Why not?

  • Copyright, that's why not. Even though the class project may be strictly academic, fair use copyright law needs to be heeded. This is a great opportunity to talk to your class about copyright, and CU's copyright awareness page is a great place to help clarify that conversation.
  • If the assignment to to share something personal and transformational in a short video, and a student fills his or her footage with stock photography, something is wrong. The power of multimodal communication lies in its ability to simultaneously serve up several channels of information that compliment and reinforce one another. Images haphazardly harvested from a Google image search seldom do this.

Student-produced poster showing Hitler and Lincoln in juxtaposition

Figure 2; Try this without using found material - a student-produced poster promoting CU Boulder's Special Collections Department

Machine-made material; I helped a class recently that was asked to produce infographics on various topics. One student, whose project was rated best-in-class, simply plugged her information into an online infographic production application that kicked out a final product within seconds. You wouldn't accept this with a writing assignment - why would it work here?

Hopefully, this little overview of assignment styles will help you understand and weigh some of the many variables you might encounter in putting together a multimedia assignment. It can be bewildering, I know.

One last thing, and I tell students this all the time: If this isn't fun, it's probably still in need of tweaking. I've yet to work with a faculty member on a successful media assignment who hadn't enjoyed the experience immensely.

So go have fun.