Teaching Film: Streaming Films and Taking “Visual Notes” on the iPad

John Marshall’s The Hunter’s streaming to my iPad.

Since the day my first iPad arrived nearly two years ago, I have enjoyed experimenting with it in my research and teaching. From the beginning I was impressed with the possibility that a single device could replace my lecture notes, deliver my Keynote presentations in class, store movie clips, file journal articles, keep ebooks, record field notes and just be fun. Initially I had planned to blog about my experiences, sharing things that I learned. I started out strong with a brief post about using my iPad in China, and then never followed up. (I have drafted a second, followup post, Using the iPad in China II, which included details about 3G subscriptions and other things, but have not yet put the finishing touches on it.)

For the past three semesters I have learned a lot about teaching with the iPad and it has really changed my workflow. I am convinced that it will transform certain aspects of the way content is delivered to students and by extension the classroom experience. While I’ll save details for those posts I hope I get to finally making up, I have one new example that I thought I’d write about because it relates to the visual anthropology senior seminar that I am teaching this semester. Last week I found a great way to take “visual movie notes” that I can use in class for discussion. If you are interested in the details without the background and history then skip down to “How To: Taking Visual Notes on the iPad.” First some background:

Showing Films in Class: Spending Time or Spending Money 

The first few times I taught my introductory class in ethnographic film, Ethnography: Text and Film, I was bothered by the issue of the film itself. While a few films are short at 30-40 minutes, a majority of the most well-known works are well over an hour long. Students could read about the films outside of class, but if we actually wanted to see them I had three options: show select clips in class, organize screening times outside of class, or spend valuable time in class watching each of the films. None of these options were ideal. Showing clips might illustrate specific concepts but students wouldn’t get to see the film the way the director intended (not to mention I would have to spend many hours locating, ripping, clipping and saving the clips I might use in class). Screening times outside of class would be a burden on students and would limit the number of films we could watch. The final option, watching films in class, was the only option with which I was left. So, I taught my film class during our J-Term period in January—when classes are scheduled in three-hour blocks. Each day I planned on spending roughly one hour each on lecture, film and discussion.

I have never, however, been satisfied with the idea of spending so much valuable class time watching films. I have always thought an ideal solution would be scheduling a “lab time” when we could watch them, but it would impact my teaching load too much. My concerns with using too much class time with films was particularly acute this year with my experimental senior seminar in visual anthropology. I simply couldn’t fit films, readings, discussion and project work in a single class.

Initially I considered ripping the films I wanted the students to see and uploading them to a campus streaming server. When folks at Hamline’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) inquired about digital distribution rights, however, the cost was unbelievably high. Streaming rights for John Marshall’s film, The Hunters, was many hundreds of dollars for one semester. A film that is over 50 years would have cost over $25 per student to stream! The folks at Documentary Educational Resources (DER) were friendly enough, but to show even the few basic films that I wanted the students to see would have cost too much. Roughly the same price as buying the course texts for each student enrolled in the class.

I was stuck with a choice between spending too much class time or too much money.

Digital Streaming and the Homework-of-Film

I was at a loss as to how to proceed—and ready to throw my syllabus out and start over—until one of the folks at DER casually mentioned that many of their films are delivered digitally through Academic Video Online, run by Alexander Street Press. I checked with our university library, Bush Library, and was pleased to learn that we had just started subscribing to the service. Upon checking it out, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Alexander Street Press digitally distributes most of the films I wanted to use in my class. Best of all, I wouldn’t have to pay more because we already subscribed to the service.

I no longer needed to worry about wasting class time watching films or breaking the bank buying very expensive digital streaming rights. At last I would be able to have my students watch films as homework, saving classtime for discussion, analysis and other activities. Ignoring the shortcomings of online streaming at this moment—clunky interfaces, inconsistent offerings and inconsistent quality—I actually can imagine a future where I won’t ever need to screen a film in class again. Of course, there may be some films I might choose to show in class for the purposes of a specific discussion. For the needs of my senior seminar, however, Academic Video online looked like it would do nicely.

Academic Video Online’s Video Streaming Page

The quality of the digital streaming at Academic Video Online is not the best and for real film connoisseurs I’m sure it would be unacceptable. The films are shown in a small window and when enlarged to full screen they can be unacceptably pixellated. They are, however, watchable.

In addition the site offers some interesting little perks. The films are streamed simultaneously with the highlighted text of the film script scrolling right next to the video window. The service also offers a way for viewers to mark and save short film clips to a personal account. Students might, for example, view films and mark and save clips that they could share or use in discussions. The interface is quite rudimentary and clunky to use, but it is serviceable.

So this semester, I wrote my syllabus with books and articles, the types of materials students expect to find. I was also, for the first time, able to add assigned films. In future years, I think I will also include optional readings and optional films that can be viewed.

Visual Homework, Class Discussion and the Problem of Taking Notes

While we are only a few weeks into the semester, I am already very pleased with the way students have come to class ready to discuss the films they have watched online. We have been able to jump immediately into discussion of the films and the assigned texts without the expensive detour of watching the films in class.

Barely two weeks into the semester, however, I realized that watching films at home presents a challenge for class discussion. With assigned readings, students can make notes in books, earmark them or use Post-It™ Notes to mark or highlight key moments while reading. During an in-class discussion they can quickly refer to notes or turn to the appropriate page to remark on a point or reference a quote. Paging through texts is an efficient way to add information to a discussion, if the reading has already been done and the book appropriately “hacked”.

An Expression Elicited by Castor Oil.

Visual materials are, however, a bit more awkward to discuss in class without first going through potentially long verbal descriptions. So if, for example, I wanted to talk about feelings evoked in the scene when Nanook’s child takes castor oil and makes a cute face, I must describe the scene well enough that everyone remembers it before we can discuss it. Of course there will be folks who don’t remember the scene or the expression. It is tiring to have such discussions without some kind of reference—and how well I describe the scene, or fail to describe it has an effect on the conversation.

So how does one “take notes” on visual material? Sure, I can watch the films and write more information in my notebook, but that is not an adequate replacement for actually having a visual reference. Academic Video Online no doubt created their awkward “cut, clip and save” software with the intention of addressing this need. I did, actually consider using their software to save short segments that I could then play back in class for discussions, but the quality of the clips is not very good. In addition, it is unnecessarily time consuming to stop the streaming film, select a clip, save it, and then continue watching. Most importantly, I really want to be able to save clips so I can reuse them from year to year. Not to mention that it would be irritating to have material for some films on their site, but not for others.

What I needed was a simple way to quickly capture visual content from the assigned films that I could then easily organize, usefully store and efficiently retreive for use in class during discussions. I don’t want to muck with wonky software or interrupt the ongoing flow of a class discussion with “hang on, I have a clip of this somewhere waitasec while I pull it up.” Anything that is that disruptive or slow won’t work. Also, I spend enough time preparing for class, so anything that adds to my prep time is not fulfilling the promise of good teaching technology. Things should be easier, faster, simpler and improve the classroom experience or why wouldn’t I just “make do” or go back to showing more films in class. I found a very quick, elegant and useful solution using my iPad.

How To: Taking Visual “Notes” on the iPad

The iPad was designed to be a comfortable and easy-to-use device for watching visual materials. Of course the easiest materials to watch are the TV shows and Movies for sale on Apple’s iTunes store. Netflix offers a nice application for streaming video, but their selection leaves much to be desired (and I cancelled my subscription when they got rid of their DVD Plus Streaming Plan last year.)

John Marshall’s The Hunters streaming to my iPad.

The first step is getting the content you want to watch on the iPad. For my class this semester, the majority of videos are either in the public domain on YouTube or available for streaming on Academic Video Online. The few videos that are unavailable for streaming I plan to show the old-fashioned way, in class or at a specially scheduled screening time. I was very pleased to discover that the videos available on Academic Video Online can be streamed full-screen on the iPad and look quite good.

When there are older materials that I want to use or visual materials that I have collected from my own fieldwork that I want to convert for use on the iPad I use Handbrake for transcoding videos. For older VCR tapes, I have been using an old Elgato EyeTV Hybrid to capture a digital stream that I can then convert on Handbrake to an iPad-friendly format. Tutorials that walk through this process are easy to find with a simple Internet search.

Once the video is on your iPad it is convenient to watch just about anywhere. If I wanted I could sit at my desk and take notes on the films while watching them. Something doesn’t seem right, however, about watching video on an iPad and taking notes with a pencil and paper—and this does not solve the issue of having visual materials to reference during class discussions.  For this we need to capture images and store them in an easy to organize and easy to retrieve format.

Capturing still images of the iPad screen is effortlessly easy. Beginning with Apple’s iOS 4 operating system all of the devices in Apple’s ecosystem—the iPhone, the iPod Touch, and the iPad—support snapping screen shots at any time by simultaneously pressing the On/Off Sleep/Wake button at the top of the device and Home button (with the small square on it) on the front of the device. When the two buttons are pressed at the same time, the screen will briefly flash and the screenshot image will be saved to the device’s Photo app. (If Photo Stream is activated, the image will also save to the photo stream.)

The image that I know I want to discuss in class.

While streaming the film or watching a file on the iPad, when I come to a moment where there is an important scene, all I need to do is snap a quick screenshot. Often I don’t need to even pause the film I can snap multiple images until I capture one that might illustrate a point I want to make. For example, while watching, Man With A Move Camera, I wanted exactly the shot where the couple at the divorce office demonstrate awareness of the camera. I thought that exact image would be a good starting point for a conversation in class about the “critical” camera and an opportunity to connect it to some of the points made in one of the readings assigned for that day. While watching that scene I just quickly snapped three or four images and caught exactly the one I had in mind. During the course of watching any film, I liberally snap screenshots of moments that tie in with texts, issues that might be important, or instances where I anticipate students might comment.  After watching an hour long film, I might have 30-40 stills saved to iPhoto.

Albums of Photos

After watching the film, all I need to do is take a few minutes to review my collection of stills, cull the ones I don’t want to use and put them in their own album. Upon opening the iPad’s Photo app I see all of the screenshots in the Camera Roll. I can quickly scroll through them and delete any images that are blurry or irrelevant and leave just the best ones. I can then move them into their own albums labeled with the name of the film. If I want, I might make a few notes about why I chose those stills, but my experience the past few weeks has has been that the still itself is often all the visual cue I need. It acts like a visual note.

If I wanted to I could export the screen captures directly into Keynote and organize them as a presentation for class, but that is not my goal. I want visual notes for use duringdiscussions, not a set path through specific material. I have found that it is enough to simply connect the iPad to the classrooms digital projector, open the Photo app and leave the collection of thumbnail images sitting there waiting to be enlarged and commented upon if the discussion calls for it.

A Photo Collection for The Hunters.

Yesterday in class, while we were talking about John Marshall’s film, The Hunters, my collection of photos sat projected up on the screen and I didn’t really use them much. Then, at one point we began to discuss the way that some students felt alienated from the images of the butchering of a giraffe—a very different reaction than, for example, the warm cuddly feelings evoked by Nanook.  On cue, I tapped on one of the stills I took of the butchering and immediately the feelings the image evoked could be discussed face-to-face with the image, not simply through dramatic retelling. After the conversation moved on to other topics I “pinched” the photo closed. I have not yet asked the students how they experience it, but I find working this way very simple and not obtrusive.

Of course, one of the real benefits of doing this has been the excellent collection of high-quality still images I have been collecting. By the end of the semester my collection will be quite large and those images will be useful for future lectures or discussions. They would also work very nicely as prompts for essay questions or exams. I have, in effect, created small stacks of visual “notecards”—a record of my film watching and a collection that I could embellish with more writing, share with others, or blog about. At the end of the semester I’ll move the piles of images to iPhoto on my desktop computer and use the photo album names as tags so that in the future I’ll easily be able to search the images if I should ever need them.

So this is an example of how I am using the iPad in class. I can only imagine how great it would be if each student in my class had their own device. Each person would be creating their own streaming collection of visual “notes” for the films. These could be shared on a service like Flickr. Not only would we learn about how the films were received by individuals, but we could have interesting discussions comparing our collections!

UPDATE: iPhoto for iPad Improves Taking “Visual Notes”

Early last week Apple announced an update to the iPad and a number of applications including iMovie for iOS. In addition, iPhoto for iPad was introduced. There are some great features that enhance just about everything that I have described above. It has only been a week since I composed this post and I already need to compose an update, “Visual Notes” with iPhoto on the iPad.

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