Reading on Screens Revisited

1935 ebook idea
An electronic book as imagined in 1935

I recently came across an article in Smithsonian magazine that was rather deceptively titled "The iPad of 1935." The illustration above comes from that article and originally appeared in the April 1935 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics magazine. At that time they were thinking that since it is possible to photograph books and also project them on a screen for examination, that perhaps this would be the way we would read. Their illustration is probably closer to watching a PowerPoint presentation than an iPad, but the idea of putting books on a screen is not just an idea of the 21st century.

That article made me do a search on this blog to see what I have written about ebooks. In 2012, I wrote about digital textbooks ("Can Schools Adopt Digital Textbooks By 2017?") I should have revisited that article in 2017 to see what had come to pass. In 2020, I can say that publishers, schools and students have adopted ebooks and digital textbooks, but there are still plenty of books on paper being used by students.

That 1935 contraption uses a roll of miniature film with pages as the "book." It reminds me of the microfilm readers I used as an undergraduate in the library. As the article notes: "microfilm had been patented in 1895 and first practically used in 1925; the New York Times began copying its every edition onto microfilm in 1935."

It took about 70 more years for handheld digital readers that we use to come on the scene and the transition is still taking place.

Though I have an iPad and a Kindle, my home and office are still filled with paper books and magazines. I would say that the bulk of my daily reading is done on a screen but the screen is on my phone and laptop. When I have taught college classes online or on-site, I have offered texts as ebooks when possible as an option. I still find that some students prefer a Gutenberg-style book on paper.

That 2012 post of mine referenced an article about the then Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski issuing a challenge to schools and publishers to get digital textbooks to students by 2017.

In 2012, there was a "Digital Learning Day" where there were discussions on transitioning K-12 schools to digital learning and using technology to transform how teachers teach and students learn inside and outside of the classroom. They issued "The Digital Textbook Playbook" guide which went far beyond textbooks and included information about determining broadband infrastructure for schools and classrooms, leveraging home and community broadband to extend the digital learning environment and understanding necessary device considerations along with some "lessons learned" from school districts that had engaged in successful transitions to digital learning. The 2012 playbook can be downloaded and it's interesting to see what has changed in the 8 years since it was written. Those changes would include a new administration with different objectives from the Obama era.

The playbook defines a "true digital textbook" as "an interactive set of learning content and tools accessed via a laptop, tablet, or other advanced device." Being that this effort was on K-12, the perspectives of key users was students, teachers, and parents.

 

YouTube Learning Playlists

YouTube learningFaculty in higher ed and K-12 are prepping for the start of the semester or the school year. In K-12, schools in the southern part of the U.S. already started earlier this month. Students - and later their teachers - have been turning to YouTube videos to learn for at least a decade. YouTube started in 2005, but in the early years, it was more about personal and funny videos than it was about learning.

Khan Academy was one of the first uses of YouTube tutorial videos. It started simply with video tutoring sessions for founder Salman Khan's cousin. I turn to YouTube to learn non-academic and non-credit learning. This summer I used YouTube videos to fix my lawnmower and my clothes dryer. It was great.

YouTube introduced a new education feature that will surely be used by some teachers this fall. It is called Learning Playlists and these dedicated landing pages are designed for educational videos. The playlists have organizational features, like chapters around key concepts, and are ordered from beginner to advanced lessons.

One thing "missing" is the "recommended videos" that you see on YouTube and that can lead you and students distractedly down the video rabbit hole. That a good omission because those algorithm-driven recommended videos can lead to some strange and not really educational places. Videos won’t autoplay at the end of a playlist either.

Last fall, YouTube announced that it was investing $20 million for creators and resources in a Learning Fund initiative with partners like Khan Academy, TED-Ed, Crash Course (Hank and John Green) and the Coding Train.

Steven Spielberg, Dinosaurs, Oscars and Degrees, Netflix and Coursera

Oscar StatuettesFilmmaker Steven Spielberg has been having an argument with Netflix. His tenure as Governor of the Academy that oversees the Oscars ends this summer, but his very public feelings about Netflix has become an issue in the motion picture industry.

Netflix is just the biggest name in streaming services and Spielberg isn't happy with this disruptor of his industry. He is all for protecting the traditional film studio pipeline and the Oscars that prioritize theaters over living rooms. He would like to see movies made for streaming services be excluded from the major categories at next year’s Oscars. He thinks that Netflix movies (and really ones from Amazon and other companies) should compete for Emmys, not Oscars.

“Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” he told British ITV News in March, 2018. “I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

Roma, the film that was up for Best Picture, was the focus of a lot of this debate, was at the center of his argument this spring. The film lost in that category to Green Book, but it won Best Foreign Film, and Alfonso Cuaron won Best Director, so it certainly had a big impact this year.

graduationNow what does this have to do with education and this blog? I do tend to view a lot of things through an education lens (pun intended). It is how I have lived my adult life. 

I love movies. I got my MA in communications with a concentration of film and video back in the late 1970s when video was already taking the place of film. In my earliest teaching days, I taught students to cut film. It was a literal cut on a piece of film stock. At one time we even cut videotape that came on reels. By the 1980s, we were editing video by copying and pasting it to other videotape and the reels became VHS tapes. Analog became digital and though my students still did some animation frame by frame using Super 8 film cameras, we knew that would end soon.

I would compare Spielberg's argument with the arguments about disruptors that we have in education.

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is a good example. Going back to 2012 (the supposed "Year of the MOOC"), there were many similar arguments being heard. MOOCs will destroy traditional universities and degrees. Online learning will become free. The quality of MOOCs is inferior to credit-based online courses from universities.

Universities were movie theaters. Roma was a MOOC. Coursera was Netflix.

In the 7 short years since the MOOC got its big push, they have changed, been adopted by traditional universities and adapted to their own purposes. They didn't destroy traditional colleges or college course or degrees. They did disrupt all of those things. All of those things have changed in some ways, and they will continue to change as the MOOC and its evolved offspring appear.

SpielbergIs Steven Spielberg a dinosaur?

He has been at the technology edge for all of his career. Yes, he prefers to shoot on 35 mm film if he can, but when he needs the video technology, such as in his Ready Player One, he goes that route. 

As an Academy Governor, he is in a place where he feels the responsibility to protect the movie business, which he clearly loves. That includes the traditional distribution vector of movie theaters. Theaters have been threatened since the arrival of television in a big way back in the 1950s. So their dominance for distribution has been threatened for more than 60 years. But theaters still exist, though in reduced numbers.

Streaming services like Netflix are a big competitor, but so are Disney and other traditional studios that want a piece of that streaming money and may care less for their theater share of profit which has been shrinking over the past few decades.

Spielberg is a dinosaur in that he wants the old system to continue. he prefers the status quo. If he was a professor or college administrator, he probably would have opposed MOOCs.

Probably, as with the MOOC, both theaters and streaming films will continue to exist. Each will influence the other, but streaming and MOOCs will not disappear.

It is understandable that Netflix wanted Roma to be considered for an Oscar, so it put it in theaters for a limited release to qualify. there are some people who are willing to pay for a film in a theater on that big screen with an audience, even though it will appear on their television set in their living room if they wait a few weeks. But Netflix makes its money from those streaming subscriptions.

Actually, it is kind of a myth that Netflix "produced" Roma.” Netflix had nothing to do with “making” or even funding “Roma.” That is actually the case for many of the shows and movies labeled as Netflix Originals. They buy films just like the other traditional studios. Participant Media financed Roma. It was shot by Cuarón’s production company. Any of the traditional studios could have acquired Roma and put it in theaters. A black-and-white film in Spanish is not as appealing to many studios, even if the director has a good track record.

If I use Coursera, the world’s largest massive open online course (MOOCs in some ways) with a learner population of nearly 40 million, as my educational Netflix, I would point out that their courses are really courses made by traditional universities. The universities are the film studios. Coursera is their distributor.

If Spielberg fights to keep things "as is" then he is a dinosaur.  There are still education Spielbergs who don't want online courses at all. MOOCs are certainly something they don't want to be considered for credit toward a degree. Credits and degrees are the Oscars of higher education. 

It is still evolution more than it is revolution.

 

Teaching the Language and Grammar of Film

The past few years, I have gotten back into teaching filmmaking. When I was doing graduate work in media with a focus on film and video, I came to believe that films can be treated as "texts" and that they can be "read" and analyzed, as I had done in my undergraduate studies in literature.

If films can be read like texts, then the language that films use must also have a kind of grammar that can explain its structures.

Roger Ebert used to do "shot at a time" workshop where he would examine a film closely. A film, like a novel, is very controlling. I think a film is even more controlling than a novel. When I read The World According to Garp, I had an idea about how Garp looked. My original sense was he looked like the author, John Irving. But after I saw the film version, Garp became - and still is - Robin Williams. Atticus Finch is Gregory Peck. When you watch a film, you only see what the camera’s eye shows us. The director, editor, cinematographer, actors, set designers, costumers and many others control (and at times manipulate) viewers. 

Knowing about the grammar of film allows you understand how that is done and can give you back some control over the way the film works. Part of the grammar is knowing the reasons why a long shot, medium shot, close up, or an extreme close up was chosen. Studying the language and grammar of the shot, the grammar of the edit will make you consider whether a high angle, a low angle, or eye level is used. Is the camera being objective or subjective? When the camera is subjective, we become one of the characters, and that can be like reading a first-person narrated novel. How does the pace of the edit affect an audience?

Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane offers many opportunities to illustrate film grammar

Every language teacher talks about composition. Every film teacher talks about the composition of shots and scenes. Look at how the director has arranged actors, objects and lighting.

Besides showing and discussing films, to teach the grammar of film you should really have students make films. Otherwise, you are teaching grammar in isolation. I learned through decades of teaching writing that grammar should be taught along with writing. Teaching grammar in isolation is not only boring, it is not effective.

You can start to teach students to make films on paper. Not every teacher has access to filmmaking gear - although today, many students are carrying a video camera in their pocket that is many times more powerful than the Super8 film cameras and video camcorders I first used in classes when I started teaching. Then and now, I have students use storyboarding as a way to really think about shots and angles and building a scene.

A wonderful "side effect" of teaching how to read a film and make a film is that it fosters critical thinking.  

I recently discovered Pixar in a Box which is a behind-the-scenes look at how Pixar artists do their jobs. It allows you to animate bouncing balls, build a swarm of robots, and make virtual fireworks explode. The program connects to math, science, computer science, and humanities in very natural ways. The project is a collaboration between Pixar Animation Studios and Khan Academy and is sponsored by Disney. 

One part of the Art of Storytelling section is on the grammar of film

Basic Shot Types

 

Get Deeper Into This

How To Read a Film

Film Studies

Film Analysis