Nicholas Mirzoeff’s How to See the World

The simplest concept of education video would be this: whatever teachers can do using text and still images, they can also do using moving picture. But there’s also a compelling case that video uniquely enables an alternative and perhaps more valuable set of learnings.

Over the Christmas/New Year break I managed a deep dive into the place of imagery in learning - with the help of Nicholas Mirzoeff’s How to See the World (Penguin, 2015). The tsunami of digital video, says Mirzoeff, is laying out the “visual commons” on which modern citizens will  grow up, roam, and learn how to operate effectively. Because our society has successfully scaled and spread the technology for watching time-based story sequences, video is now our default way to generate and consume messages. Through the video hours we clock up consuming entertainment, information, gaming or broadcasting we are acquiring the skills to thrive in complex urbanised environments. Video, according to Mirzoeff, educates citizens in what to see (and what not to see), how to perform their various identities (professional, gender, ethnic) and how to display personal attributes. Whereas a culture of text once nurtured our knowledge of information or process, a culture of video schools us towards mastery of proprioception: the faculty of assessing our own presence and performing our social functions. Setting aside whether this is a welcome or unwelcome development (I’m still thinking) let’s ask: what are the issues for use of video in learning?

I reckon that Mirzoeff’s concept of video and the “visual commons” offers educators a choice. Teachers and institutions who chose to define syllabus as the transmission of information or process-skills will see the ready availability of video as an opportunity to bolster that task. This favours education video formats like instructive how-tos with experts, MOOCs, lecture capture, explanatory material that works on a traditional didactic pedagogy but is consumed with a finger on the pause button. A quick glance around BETT shows plenty of adherents to this path.

Alternatively, educators can embrace video as a transformative opportunity to build proprioception in the citizen skillset. This implies a view of education’s task more as helping us how to perform roles, how to proceed successfully through an event, and how to generate  meaning socially through actions. To the learning of proprioception, video (if it is authentic) brings superior power: it’s a scalable and sustainable medium for delivering engaging time-based narratives. Learners can use video to model the performative aspects of their identity, and assimilate ways of managing their own presence in the world.

Each approach has its educational merits and weaknesses. Political perspective makes a difference: under certain value frameworks you could view both of the options as alternatively Orwellian or liberating.  They may simply be optional routes to the same destination: the skills of decoding reality and fulfilling adult roles appropriately.

Working as specialists in the supply of authentic video material to education clients, we find the sector is investing in both visions of how to harness the medium. While some learning brands ask for what is basically an illustrated lecture series, others ask video to unleash curiosity, stimulate emotional identification with characters, and expose learners to compelling events. There is clearly space for both, and even for hybrids.

Authenticity is a key requirement for those visions of video which favour the idea that education’s job is to help us to model proprioception. For such learning, the video must be genuine and unmanipulated - and appear to be so. Authenticity is the main demand from learners when their preferences in education video are market-researched. They are fed up with education video content that implicitly patronises them with styles and formats that seem stilted or artificial compared to the video styles they consume outside the classroom.  

An example of authentic video in use for education is a story we recut from a sub-plot in an ITV documentary on the opening of an exclusive hotel. Interwoven in a peak time broadcast about wealth and bling, the camera had followed a trainee chef who got a modest promotion. The programme producers were creating “human interest” for their glitzy documentary, and on the way had captured some material with valid messaging on workplace skills and vocational careers paths. With a cut and a snip or two, and a new commentary, we created a bite-size narrative that allows the watcher to rehearse and assimilate themselves to the vital life event of getting started on the employment ladder. DLA’s education expertise supports ITN Productions to supply hundreds of units of this type of material from broadcast catalogues, re-edited and rights-ready for education. We’ve made a short video of how we go about creating material like this - a “making of”, if you like - see it here.

Theorists of visual culture like Mirzoeff may seem some way removed from the realities of shipping video units to the world’s digital learners, but his critique of how we consume and interpret the image is a provocative must-read for anyone using visual media in education.