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A Production Framework Bringing Digital Literacy into the Classroom

There are any number of ways to bring digital literacy and/or digital creativity (DL/DC) into the classroom, and there are a variety of materials out there that can help guide instructors on everything from assignment redesign to in-class instruction. But one of the more helpful things I have found for students and instructors alike is to situate the activity as part of a larger framework or orientation (i.e., provide a meta-framework). For when we bring "the digitalinto a class in a piecemeal fashion--as a kind of one-off activity--the elements can feel disconnected or the process can feel novel, rather than integral to the course, its goals, and the ways in which we communicate meaning, understanding, and knowledge in a given discipline. To combat this, I encourage instructors to think about the process overall and to help students see each component, activity, exercise, or assignment as part of a unified orientation. There are, of course, a multitude of metaphors or architectures that one can leverage for this purpose, but one of my favorites (particularly if having students work with video in any capacity) is the production framework. Here, I introduce an assignment, or unit, or even the entire course as involving three stages (Pre-Production, Production, and Post-Production) and then I attempt to demonstrate the significance of each stage and its interconnectedness to the others so that students get a feel for the overall structure and flow before we begin. In this regard, I try to get students to understand that the better they control elements in the pre-production stage, the more affordances they will have in the post-production stage. I also signpost different activities, processes, practices, and considerations within the different units of this framework.

To help readers better understand this particular approach, I have unpacked these elements in a bit more detail in this Spark page. These, of course, are not iron clad rules or perfect iterations, but hopefully are introduced sufficiently below so that others might be able to leverage this orientation for their own purposes.

PRE-PRODUCTION

In my approach, Pre-Production gets divided into five area of consideration, which I help students remember via the acronym FRESH: file management, research, equipment, storyboarding, and heuristics. While file management is a first-order consideration, the areas themselves are not intrinsically hierarchical; rather, they often work in concert (if not recursively) to inform and guide the coming production.

File Management

One of the best ways to minimize student frustration on any digital project is to stress the importance of file management. Students routinely cannot locate files or forget what they named them (or don't know which layer refers to which thing), and the majority of these kinds of tensions and issues can be avoided altogether by paying attention to file management. As such, I begin each project with a conversation on the types of files students are likely to work with and a brief guide (i.e., architecture) for managing those files. More specifically, I tell students to first create a folder on the desktop (or in the cloud) and put everything in that one folder: media assets, project files, etc.; second, I recommend students (a) create a subfolder for each media type (video, audio, image, etc.) or (b) identify the media type as the first element of their file naming system (e.g., video_sarahinterview_camera2.mov); third, I encourage them to establish a file naming system that is easily reproducible and could be followed by any potential collaborators (I tend to use file type, file name, descriptor, and iteration, but I let each student determine what works best for them); and fourth, I stress (if not require) that students name all layers or tracks or similar project components as they bring them into the production. In many ways, internal naming conventions are just as important as the file names themselves, and in both cases a bit of attention at the beginning can dramatically improve the overall efficiency of student workflows.

Research

In this framework research encompasses a variety of inquiry practices: ranging from issues related to the topical content of the project to the multitude of considerations for production and post-production activities. Thus, in a traditional sense, this includes standard research activities of identifying source material, taking notes and analyzing the work (and words) of others, and synthesizing the rich array of findings across media artifacts (print articles and books, webtexts and social media posts, etc). But this also includes the plethora of considerations that go into digital fieldwork or network-based media asset accumulation.

  • For fieldwork, students might need to research what they can and cannot record, who might be a good interview subject (and how to contact them/set up an interview), what the restrictions are on recording people or places or activities (and whether they need IRB approval), and so on. This phase might also include the research work of finding a suitable location for audio/video capture, discovering which equipment works best for the different approaches, engagements, and contexts for production related to one’s project, or learning which software is likely best for supporting their vision (and/or learning how to use that software in some effective capacity).
  • For media asset accumulation, this research stage may include learning how to access or download copies of assets, how to store or manipulate various asset types, or even learning about copyright issues and creative commons licensing.

These are just some of the base considerations as each DL/DC activity or project is likely to invite its own unique array of pre-production considerations that involve students doing research. What I especially like about this orientation, however, is that it situates the act of research as being far more than just looking up texts online or working with library database searches. These are, of course, important considerations in their own right, but research itself is far more integral to a wider range of critical and creative activities and takes place in relation to people and places and policies just as much as in relation to printed books and journals.

Equipment & Setup

While some of the equipment considerations will be covered under the research component, this element is meant to focus students’ attention on (a) the specific material items involved (audio recorders, video cameras, smart-phones-as-production material [and related applications], lighting equipment, etc.), and (b) the technical practices associated with setting-up and using those material objects (e.g., proximity of the microphone to maximize the record quality, 3-piece lighting set-up, etc.). And here it is important to note that I typically do not provide students with this information or know-how; rather, I ask them to include these considerations as part of their research engagement and then to talk with me as discrepancies or inconsistencies arise. Further, I don’t always have a ready answer for their specific issues, but together we can often figure out a conditional solution—and this to me is almost as important as students discovering industry standard practices for equipment and set-up. For example, a 3-light set is great if one has three lights and requisite stands (and space) for that approach, but if not, then how might one accomplish similar lighting effects using a window, a lamp, and some tinfoil?

Storyboarding

Storyboarding is, in many ways, part of the invention process of any given project and is akin to outlining an argument for an essay or for oral delivery. But where this is specifically helpful with media projects, as opposed to traditional topical outlines or workflow documents, is that storyboards ask students to integrate the development of content within the steps of operation and sequences of representation—identifying workflows, materials, processes, representation, content, meaning, and the like. It’s the difference between reading the dialogue of a play and being the director of the play—where what is at stake is more than just the scripted content and instead includes a larger realization of the work (from set to timing to costumes, etc.). Storyboarding, then, is a technique for having students take these larger complexities into consideration as they begin imagining their work and thinking through their projects (and specifically grounding that thinking in the doing of their project).

There are, of course, a variety of storyboard templates available for students to use, and a quick Google search will return an abundance of examples that work for any number of projects (from podcasts to video creations, among others). But my own preference is that storyboards include the following elements: identifying information for the project and the specific storyboard use/scene/moment (e.g., project title, storyboard number, sequence identifier [scene/shot or time marker], etc.), a set plan (materials and setup for visual or audio production), a framing description (of the scene or content), action plans (production guides/ideas), and the key elements or take-aways this component intends to add to the project (which forces students to situate the storyboard itself within the context of the project and its intended meanings).

Heuristics (and heuretics)

Heuristics (and its related cousin heuretics) ask students to use the potential evaluative criteria for a project as an operative guide and/or to think about the inventive practices associated with a given media/platform/approach. Of course, most students see the grade as the end goal rather than understanding the project itself as having value and/or driving the needs of the work. As such, it is, in many ways, easier for students if you just have clearly identified evaluative criteria that can serve as de facto inventive guides (heuristics). But for a richer array projects that often posses a wider range of complexities, you might try grounding the students in inventive (heuretic) considerations. Which is to say, rather than determining the form of and evaluative criteria for a project, have student ideas themselves shape the form and function of the project, with the project's central idea, thesis, or purpose guiding invention and assessment directly. In this orientation, the content, the exigence, and the media all work together to find a critical mode and means of expression. For example, as their focus students might want to raise awareness of an issue on campus (e.g., sexual violence) and so they imagine the different kinds of projects and platforms that could be used (creating an infographic, making a public service announcement, building a website, etc.); then, as part of that process, they work to situate the ways in which those kinds of things (infographic, PSA, etc.) create meaning and/or establish their value. These latter considerations, in turn, come to operate as evaluative criteria (intrinsic to the project itself), and students can then see how the inventive process (i.e., the heuretic act) can generate the very heuristics necessary for meaningful assessment.

PRODUCTION

Part of the reason I like this framework so much is that the production component covers such a wide array of practices. While it may seem quite aligned with video work, the truth of the matter is that the very act of writing--the drafting of an essay or informative paper--is itself an act of production. I am a writing teacher at heart--with many of my courses oriented around digital writing or writing for digital environments--and so while it is important to think through various considerations when bringing DL/DC into the classroom, it is also important to remember that these things need not be at the expense of more traditional modes of learning (nor traditional modes of expressing that learning). That is, DL/DC and writing are not mutually exclusive, but rather complimentary in nature.

To this end, I tell students that in all writing/making/thinking activities, there is a production stage that involves either the drafting/crafting/sequencing of media elements, the recording/capturing/creating of media artifacts, or the composing/performing/producing of meaningful utterances and artifacts. Within these activities of production there are a couple of key considerations that are of critical importance. First, each production element has its own array of practices and considerations. While writing a paper and making a video both involve production (in a multitude of ways), the processes themselves are quite different. Second, each production process is only the next first step toward what will become the final project. That is, students should see the production step as not the end but the beginning of what is to become their representation or creation. And again, this stage is the process that sets up the possibilities available to one's thinking and expression in the post-production activity (whether editing an essay or creating a multitrack mixdown). Thus, what I tell instructors interested in using this approach is that during the production stage focus less on the finer details of an idea or expression and more on helping students identify critical and creative strategies (i.e., the rhetorical and technical maneuvers) that make the production process itself more successful or more effective (both in the act of production and for post-production engagements). This can range from setup and capture strategies that work well for post-production manipulation to habits of practice for drafting and idea development, but the goal is to focus on 'getting things on the page' or making assets that can be further refined and reimagined in post.

POST-PRODUCTION

One of the distinct benefits of working in creative media, particularly digital visual media, is the affordances of manipulation and augmentation available in post-production activities. I mean, the phrase "we'll fix it in post" is commonplace for a reason, as post-production augmentations allow one to add emphasis, move an audience closer to a subject, focus attention, and add dimensions of affect (among other considerations). The challenge, of course, is getting students to understand the flexibility and power that reside in the post-production engagement--and again, this applies to traditional writing as well, as one of the major distinctions between novice and expert writers is the depth, degree, and duration of revision involved. Thus, when employing this meta-frame for a course or unit, I want students to understand that this last stage is critical to the success of a work: we don't just submit our production work; rather we create things and then work them over in post so that they come to say or express or represent the exact kind of things we imagine (or that a project needs). To this end, I further orient students by situating post-production as involving three primary orientations: feedback loops, re-envisioning, and enhancement.

Feedback Loops (& Peer Review)

The first orientation here is to understand that peer-review activities, in the fuller sense of the concept, are post-production activities. And they, along with other related feedback loops, are critical in helping students not only understand what works in the project, but also in providing insight on specific areas that might need more work or guidance on particular ways to address a project (conceptually, technically, or both). In all fairness, I also talk about the importance of feedback loops leading back into additional production work--owing to the recursive nature of all writing/making activities--but grounding these considerations in 'post' helps students understand that making changes and creating various iterations of a project will be central to its final outcome.

Re-Envisioning

Outside of the feedback loops, one of the key values of the post-production stage is making sure students understand that 'post' is as much about the ability to re-envision a work as it is about revising the work. Don't get me wrong, revision is important, but I tend to situate the kinds of engagements at this stage as altering the overall vision or approach to a given representation or rethinking the flow of ideas. Which is to say, while we need to be aware of a traditional revision activities that streamline and/or improve the creations we have, this stage is also meant as an opportunity to critically reconsider what is actually in the production and whether or not there is a better vision/version waiting to be realized. I often talk about this in relation to traditional writing engagements, where a student spends the production process drafting a paper and only near the end finally finds what she was really thinking about or trying to say. In that sense, rather than just trying to fix the draft as it is, what is often called for is a reimagining of the work, where the last paragraph from version 1.1 becomes the starting point for a post-production (and/or re-production) practice (yielding 2.1). This is especially true with a lot of web-based projects, where, for example, a student might use the web authoring process to discover ideas as she produces a website but, once the production is done, realizes she needs a different architecture to make the website function the way she wants or to offer the kind of experience she had in mind. Thus, this part of the process involves revision, but also invites a reimagining and a remaking as well.

Enhancement

The last component of the post-production orientation is to get students to see this stage as the one in which an author/creator gets to enhance a work. This can include the cleaning up of audio files, grammar and spellchecker edits, image color correction, and the like, for those matters of technical efficacy do, in fact, enhance the overall quality of a work. But I also situate this stage/component as an opportunity to saturate particular colors or considerations, to swap media elements or assets for specific kinds of meaning or affect, or to add motion or interactivity to change the experience of the artifact itself. Thus, while traditional editing considerations do take place here, the goal is to get students to look at each individual element and each ecology and think about the ways in which post-production augmentations and manipulations can enhance their narratives or create more impacting mediations.

AS FRAMING ORIENTATION

As with any framing orientation, what matters is not explicitly the categories themselves nor that the structure functions as a rigid system, but rather that the orientation allows students and teachers alike to see the course, the unit, or the activity as being part of an ecology of practices and relations in which (a) there are various stages and (b) each stage asks them to take into consideration specific elements, obstacles, techniques, and the like. In truth, this particular framework is incredibly porous, as parts of each stage seep into, out of, and through the others. But I find that if students understand their work as being committed to these three orienting stages they can at least begin from a grounded position, which is incredibly helpful as DL/DC activities often unground students. That is, students who are good students, good at being a student, and good at doing traditional student work can often feel overwhelmed, at a loss, and/or generally uncomfortable when asked to do more creative activities and assignments. This in itself isn't a bad thing and helping students work through this can often be just as important as the project itself. But one way to help them with this particular sense of ungroundedness is to start the assignment or segment with this meta-framing, as it allows the students the option to cling to the framing orientation (a pseudo magnetic north) for an engagement in which the very grounds upon which they stand shift and drift as they find their way.

justinhodgson.com | @postdigitalJH | JH@LinkedIn

Created By
Justin Hodgson
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Created with images by ShareGrid - "untitled image" • kaboompics - "working work space" • Gabriel Barletta - "Fingers on the piano keys" • Jacob Miller - "Macro computer information" • blickpixel - "lens photographer photo"

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