Using Technology in Learning to Speak the Language of Film

by Patricia ONeill and Janet Simons, Hamilton College


As faculty, we often assume that our students have a facility with and understanding of technology because they seem at home with their headphones, cell phones and instant messaging systems.1 In general, students do not perceive technology as being a novel mechanism in their daily lives, and, indeed, it is not. Since early childhood, their everyday routine has included making themselves available as receivers and transmitters for technologically-reproduced information. As familiar or accessible as technology may be to the Net Generation, however, few students exhibit a conscious understanding of technology as a tool for structuring knowledge. We have been slow to realize that achieving proficiency or, even more so, fluency in the focused use of technology is a form of language acquisition that can best be learned in combination with other language structures, (what the structuralists in linguistics, semantics and anthropology have famously termed “codesâ€?). As educators, we are bound to recognize that the arena in which our students will need to operate post-graduation will require of them the abilities to critically analyze multimodal information and to communicate in such formats. Clearly then students must understand why they choose to use particular technical modes and how their choices shape the meanings they convey.

It is our responsibility to create learning environments that make gaining an understanding of the inevitable connections between technological form and ideational content as explicit and extensive as is possible. To do so we must ask ourselves a number of crucial questions about what features of the technology or technologies students are working with intersect with their conceptual objectives:

  • How do different technologies or features within them lend themselves to extending, organizing, or expressing human potential?
  • What types and forms of information are best manipulated by which particular technological tools?
  • What analogies can be constructed between the languages of technology and the vocabularies of various disciplines, whether those disciplines are visual, verbal, kinetic or ideational in emphasis?
  • How can students manipulate content and construct their ideas using technology?

Answering these questions is quite a challenge, but students can grasp these issues if the appropriate technology is integrated with the content of the course.  Understanding how to integrate the appropriate technology into a course is only part of the solution. Students also need to understand the complexity of the relations between the array of technological tools and the particular questions or concepts raised by the discipline or subject to which the tools are being applied. In other words, they need to be trained to think about the content/tool interface critically and creatively if they expect to contribute effectively to the technology-based structures of knowledge and power in the 21st century.

Providing a Context for Discussion: The Specifics of One Course Design

The preceding general discussion does offer a theoretical approach to an area that needs explicit and extensive consideration. The authors would not claim to be able to suggest a sweeping, all-encompassing resolution to the issues raised, but they would like to discuss the way in which such issues were explored and addressed within the format of one experimental course: Art of Cinema, taught at Hamilton College from 2002-05. Patricia O’Neill has been teaching Art of Cinema since 2000. She approached Janet Simons in 2002 for guidance in incorporating a more conscious approach to technological aspects of film into the curriculum. While it is common practice in such courses to require students to either keep a journal or write short analyses of the films they watch, we wanted to develop additional activities that would address students’ different learning abilities and styles, test their presumed familiarity with visual culture and develop their expertise with digital technology.

Unlike programs in large universities or colleges with established film or communications majors, this course has no pre-requisites, does not count toward any other major, and draws students from across the curriculum. Most of the students have no prior experience of film study or video production. In this context, asking students to complete two filmmaking assignments means that they must learn to use digital cameras and iMovie editing software as well as grapple conceptually with how to represent their ideas visually. Technology is thus an integral part of the content of the course as well as an alternative means for students to demonstrate their knowledge of a film’s technique and meaning.

By working through the process of integrating technology with the course content, we have used a series of assignments to help students apply what they have learned in the classroom, deepen their understanding of the course material, and develop confidence in their ability to use technology effectively in presenting their own ideas and understanding. In the following analysis, we discuss the importance of planning in the development of technology-based assignments, of collaboration between faculty and instructional technologists, and of the role of public presentations for enhancing students’ learning. We conclude that by incorporating appropriate technology in the process of learning, students not only engage the materials of the course more enthusiastically, they also feel empowered by the course to use and understand technology more critically and creatively outside the classroom.2

The Workshops: Learning to Put Theory into Practice

To enhance the study of film and to make students critical viewers in the future, the course includes two film assignments: a 50-second silent film that replicates the ideas and experience of early cinematographers such as the Lumière Brothers; and a 3-minute sound film, using original footage to remake or adapt a sequence from a film we have watched in class. Both assignments require that students learn to capture, save, store, compress, and present their films on CDs or DVDs to an audience of their peers and other members of the campus community. Students work alone on the first assignment and in self-selected teams of 2-4 students on the second assignment.

Although the assignments seem simple enough, they require a substantial amount of planning on the part of the faculty. Students must collaborate and coordinate with the audio/visual department staff, who lend students digital cameras, and with instructional technologists, who offer workshops on basic videography (video camera settings, camera angles, audio, lighting), video editing (using iMovie), and various compression methods to deliver their edited footage for exhibition. Working out this schedule of workshops and due dates for each part of each assignment is complicated but necessary to insure that there will be enough cameras for shooting, and so that students can bring their own footage to the video editing workshop.

Since other courses on campus often require equipment and professional support, planning these assignments in advance has allowed us to provide timely support in the computer labs before the projects are due. In our first year of experimentation with developing the technological component of the course, we modeled these assignments ourselves at a conference sponsored by MITC (Midwest Instructional Technology Center of the Mellon Foundation) in the summer of 2003. Since then we have found that having the faculty member attend the workshops offered by ITS staff not only encourages students to be more attentive but also gives them the opportunity to ask questions about the assignment. Our understanding of the difficulties some of them face in learning to use technology encourages the less adept students and makes it less likely that they will simply get their friends to do the assignments for them. In addition, students note the collaborative efforts of the faculty and instructional technologists and are able to see how their questions about the technology are related to the requirements of the assignment. For example, students typically forget that less is more. Technical novices will show all of the footage of a sequence to tell a story and thus exceed the time constraints for the project. Or, they will hand the mouse to a more ambitious student who is eager to add bells and whistles at the expense of the story. In collaboratively taught authoring sessions, the faculty member guides the students by keeping them focused on the goals of the assignment while the instructional technologist helps them to attain their goals in the most efficient manner possible.

The structure and the timing of the workshops in the semester allow students to learn the technology well enough to understand how it functions as a tool for expressing their ideas and also how the special features of digital cameras and editing software can enhance and shape those ideas. While organizing workshops so that students can learn to use technology is time-consuming for faculty, technologists, and students, the results have been consistently positive. At the end of the semester, Simons asks students to fill out a questionnaire about their experience in the workshops and with the assignments. Students say that what they learned in shooting and editing their own work helped them understand better the elements and structure of filmmaking in general. Ninety-eight percent of the students who responded over the past three years have said that the process of making a film added to their understanding of the films surveyed and the concepts discussed in the course (n=45). Many of the students commented that the process of making their own film gave them greater ability to recognize and deconstruct meaning intended by the directors of major films (73%, n=45). They mention a new level of appreciation for both the creative and technical aspects of films (88%, n=45). There are also many references in these comments many references to the “challengesâ€? and “difficultiesâ€? of communicating through this medium while in the same sentence emphasizing how much they enjoyed making their own film.

Student comments have progressed over the three years from almost unanimous agreement that the workshops were useful to increasing requests for more advanced workshops. This past semester students were already asking for an advanced videography workshop (dollies, cranes, additional microphones) and permission to use Final Cut Pro instead of iMovie at the beginning of the course. This request in itself needs careful critical evaluation for, although students believe that Final Cut Pro is the latest in “coolâ€? technology, and that the increasing ubiquity of user-friendly video editing software will make them instantly more “expert,â€? what we have observed is that very few of these students actually use the options that make this software more advanced than iMovie. Here we may have an illustration of the way in which apparent technological sophistication on the part of the students is rather a symptom of advanced, but unreflecting, consumerism; many of them have not yet gained mastery over the technology since the more complex programs take longer to learn, and they often fail as a result of the time expended to create or express effectively the ideas of the course. Meanwhile they often miss the crucial instruction in file management, storage, and multimedia formatting considerations that would allow them to experiment and complete the assignment in time.

On the other hand, students can in one semester easily master iMovie and the associated video technology. As they become proficient with this program, they are able to push the program to its limits in order to express their ideas. Their ideas drive their engagement of the technology rather than allow the technology to drive their engagement of the assignment. This is evident from their paragraph-long survey responses to the question, “Did you encounter any difficulties while creating your film?â€? The students were able to describe audio editing and graphic/video composition problems they encountered and their creative solutions.3

These students are focusing on how they were able to manipulate or construct information, and not on how the technology provided a special effect. As masters of the tool, their creativity and knowledge become a greater part of the process and they were highly invested in the outcome. Because they were able to see the technology as giving form to their ideas through their own self-conscious manipulations, they were able to conceive of the manner and meaning of form in works by their peers and, more importantly, in works by professional filmmakers.

Putting It All Together:  Assignments in Technology

(1) Working alone—The fifty-second silent film: By imitating the techniques of past filmmakers, students not only learn new skills, they see all films differently. In completing this assignment each student is in a sense “insideâ€? the process rather than simply theorizing from his/her reception of the finished work.4From our perspective, this assignment enhances the student’s understanding of the course content. For example, when a student watches the Lumière Brothers’ first film, a shot of people leaving a factory, it looks easy. The student sets a camera on a tripod at a street crossing during a change of class hour. But problems arise when the student realizes that she has to decide which side of the street will give her the widest view and which angle will create the best perspective for lighting and which moment is best for starting and stopping her film. In manipulating the camera and tripod, she is in effect involved in the film in a much deeper way than when she had studied the Lumières’ film or even imagined her project in the abstract. Moreover, once she sees her film juxtaposed to those of other students, new ideas come into play about how light and composition tell the story or allow for multiple interpretations. These lessons are then incorporated into her next assignment and certainly provide a new context for her viewing of subsequent films in class and in the theater. Early cinema no longer appears simplistic, and films in general are no longer judged merely for their entertainment value. The experience of working with technology brings the grammar of visual language to consciousness and allows the student to understand not only the conventions of film genres, but also the multiple possibilities that the discourse of film’s techniques allows.

(2) The cooperative effort—Groups of 2-4 students producing a 3-minute sound film: In the second assignment, intensive viewing of the original work and decisions about how to remake or adapt a 3-minute segment of it reinforce the practice of “close readingâ€? films for their technique and style, and extend students’ understanding of film as a means of communicating with and persuading an audience. In addition, the fundamentally collaborative effort involved in creating a film gets some exercise as students seek to arrive at and execute decisions. This rhetorical dimension of film and digital media is underscored by having students present their films in a public showing. Some examples of students’ projects can be viewed here:

The public presentation of their films creates anticipation and motivation in the students to perform to the best of their abilities. Since their adaptation is shown along with the clip from the original film, the audience can see how the students overcame technical problems and non-professional actors and equipment to capture the essential elements of the original film’s style. Faculty and members of the audio/visual department, the library, and technical services are invited to attend as judges. They are given an evaluation form, which asks them to rate the students’ work for its technical and creative achievement. By inviting members of the community from different departments, O’Neill draws upon their various expertise and sensitivity to the difficulties and potential of the students’ efforts. After the event, we talk with the judges and review their comments. O’Neill then gives each student-team a brief summary of what has been said about the strengths and weaknesses of their work and informs them of their grade.


The increased number of courses in film currently being offered suggests that educators are already acknowledging the fact that film is part of the culture’s discourse and that students need to think, read and write critically about films with the same rigor that they do when they respond to texts. We need to carry that recognition still further by articulating a more systematic theoretical and pedagogical framework for such offerings and make the use of technologies like digitalization a more critically integrated element in that framework. Bruce Douglas Ingraham notes in his article “Scholarly Rhetoric in Digital Mediaâ€? that while educators have developed well-defined strategies for teaching students to analyze data and construct logical arguments within our text-based disciplines, “at this early stage of multimedia scholarship there are as yet no well-developed scholarly models.”5

Our experience with The Art of Cinema suggests that a more conscious and conscientious approach to curriculum enhancement through the use of technology requires careful preliminary planning and scheduling. Connections between the course content and the supporting technology being applied to it also need to be made explicit, discussed fully and physically demonstrated. The use of workshops for such demonstrations—taught as authoring sessions and with faculty participation—is invaluable. In our experimenting with the syllabus for Art of Cinema, we have tried to address the issue of learning about media through film assignments, and we have structured student presentations of these assignments in ways that attempt to give them and us the same sense of context that informs literary study.

From their evaluations of the experience of the course, it would appear that students appreciate the workshops and are thrilled to have their work taken seriously. More important, perhaps, their own feeling of authority to make judgments about films, to articulate why and how a film works for them, indicates that they have managed to demystify, if not master, the technology of film, and have discovered another means of communicating and expressing their ideas as well as reflecting on the ideas of others. This sense of empowerment is similar to that which students experience in any course where they have truly learned the material. The difference here is that students begin to incorporate new methods of communication or expression that seemed unattainable to them before and that the learning process therefore becomes substantially more active.

As an understandable result, students are often inspired to use the active skills developed for the course in other contexts. Simons frequently assists former Art of Cinema students on multimedia projects they have chosen to develop instead of or in addition to their written assignments for other courses. Female students in particular have reported that the course has given them confidence to seek internships and graduate training in film and media. Integrating technology into the process of learning about film becomes more than another tool for teaching and learning the course content; it also emerges as a lens for knowledge, a powerful lens that helps students engage conceptually with the structures that constitute the visual and multimedia dimensions of our contemporary culture.




1. Claus Tully emphasizes this point in his article “Growing Up in Technological Worlds: How Modern Technologies Shape the Everyday Lives of Young Peopleâ€? in Bulletin of Science, Technology, and society. Vol. 23, Issue 6, (2003), 444-456.


  1. Edward Tufte offers valuable insights into the problems that arise when a technology like PowerPoint is inappropriately applied. While we agree with his general concerns, we think our students are learning to apply technology in self-consciously creative ways to construct and externalize their ideas. See Tufte’s “The Cognitive Style of PowerPointâ€? in Journal of the American Statistical Association. Vol. 99, No.466, (June 2004), 569.
  2. For example, in “Whits of the Afternoonâ€? students imitated an iris shot by shooting through a rolled poster board that was illuminated by a high side angle.

Here are some of the other responses to the question “Did you encounter difficulties?”:

1) “There were several difficulties in creating this film. A specific shot with a camera going around a risen hand was difficult but fun. Also synching the music with the scenes was difficult but we managed.â€?

2) “There were some physical limitations in the effects that could be used in the film, e.g. not having a tall enough tripod. Still the difficulties were compromised into creative alternatives.â€?

3)  “Yes – we did not have certain props (a dagger and sheath), we could not position the actors exactly as they appeared in the film, and it was hard to get the exact lighting. On the computer, one problem is that we could not obtain the “star irisâ€? transition to use in the shot where the actress is waking up, so we had to use the “burstâ€? transition which does not create the same effect.â€?

  1. These outcomes were predicted by Jonassen in the analysis, Jonassen, D. H., (1994). “Thinking Technology: Toward a constructivist design model.” Educational Technology, 34(3), 34-37.