TV Production – Thinking Outside The Box

By Stephen Blackwell.

For years, educators have criticised television as a passive pastime that reduces student creativity and participation. Now students at Yarra Hills Secondary College have the opportunity to harness the technology they have grown up with and become active users. Rather than television narrowing student focus to a small, passive window, we are using that same technology to widen student outlook and provide an engaging curriculum. This is our story.

In 2006, I had the good fortune to attend a series of presentations given by Tom March (ozline.com) whose redefining of the 3Rs as Real, Rich and Relevant struck a deep chord. Two years later a federal grant was made to schools in the area of Science and as the coordinator at that time, I challenged my staff to think big – to think outside of the box. Ironically I had just received a copy of Education Technology Solutions at an IT conference and was attracted to an advertisement for a television production
studio in a box, the TriCaster Studio. The decision was made to set up a television studio utilising the latest technology.

We were fortunate to be able to commandeer a little-used classroom that also had a former computer pod adjoining it with large windows between the two spaces. The pod made an ideal control room and the classroom, once fitted out with a green screen, lights, microphones, cameras and monitors, quickly became the studio. The heart of our television studio is the TriCaster Studio, a small computer, only slightly larger than a shoebox, but with the power of a professional live production control centre. The TriCaster allows up to six video inputs and four audio inputs, has two virtual VCRs and allows students to mix video from the live cameras and pre-recorded clips real-time and either record to hard drive, export to a screen or transmit over the network or internet. For us, the ability to produce the finished product live was important as students were often reluctant to wait for post-production editing.

Chroma key is perhaps the key (pardon the pun) feature of our studio – the ability to film before a green background and digitally replace the background with any image or video. From a very ordinary looking former classroom with one wall covered in green cloth, students are transported to the sand dunes of Egypt or a modern, high-tech news room. Using a wide range of products, students have been creating their own backgrounds with students performing Macbeth in ancient castles or creating their own Oprah-style interview sets.

Although we have made a significant investment in the TriCaster Studio, all that we do in the studio can be done using open-source software and the typical audiovisual equipment and computers found in schools. This has been an important facet of our studio work because it allows our students to replicate what they do in the studio at home without having to resort to the illegal downloading of commercial software. In particular we have made extensive use of Google SketchUp to design sets as well as IDX Renditioner, a free add-on to SketchUp that converts the cartoon-like 3D set into photographic quality images. Several other free programs have been
used including:

  • Blender – a 3D modelling and animation package
  • Celtx – a storyboarding and script-writing program and
  • Audacity – a sound editor

The internet is a wonderful resource and there are several excellent online applications freely available including JayCut (video editor) and Ujam (music creator) both of which allow students to produce excellent productions without the need for any specialist software or equipment other than a web cam, web browser and internet connection. We often hear the phrases “industry standard” and “you get what you pay for” when it comes to multimedia but we have found this not to be true. A good example is the video editor Lightworks which is available at no cost from www.lightworksbeta.com and is by no means an amateur product having been used to edit the film The King’s Speech.

With all of this technology available, how have our students used the studio over the past two years? Most students tend to use the studio as an alternative to a PowerPoint presentation. Our year nine students spend several days in the City of Melbourne researching how the public make use of various facilities. On returning to school they prepare a report presenting their findings and usually this is in the form of the team of students giving an oral presentation backed by several slides. The reports tend to be half-hearted affairs with the class audience showing little interest, typical of class presentations in most subjects and year levels. By changing the format to a current affairs-style program with a student anchor throwing to reporters in the field (standing in front of the green screen with the background consisting of photographs taken by the students) the enthusiasm of both presenters and audience for the reporting phase of the unit has increased dramatically.

The studio has seen a wide range of student use including the production of 30-second science commercials to sell an element, a major project contracted by the CFA and Shire of Yarra Ranges to produce an infomercial on safe conduct during bushfires, and a semester-length production created entirely by our year nine and ten students. The flexibility of the studio and the ease with which students learn to make use of its features have led to many ad-hoc productions becoming a regular part of the curriculum. Lip dubs are a YouTube phenomena where a large group of students mime to a song. Students create a short piece of choreography and the camera moves through the school from student to student filming in one take. Our first attempt was very successful with each year level creating a lip dub entry into a college-wide competition. This has now become an annual event and we hope to open our competition up to other schools in the future.

What have we observed during studio productions? Engagement is certainly the standout in terms of changes to student behaviour. Students, particularly boys with a history of poor behaviour and limited attention, have been observed maintaining focus for entire sessions in the studio. This may be largely attributable to the hands-on nature of the work and the physical moving about with cameras and props. We have also been pleased to be able to offer to students with skills in the performing arts an opportunity to shine in subjects such as science. We have also noticed an interesting dichotomy between students who have picked up skills in the studio readily and staff who have found it more daunting. We have overcome this by encouraging teachers to let go of controlling the lessons in the studio and allowing the students to run the entire process on their own with little guidance from the teacher. An increase in the depth of preparation and research carried out by students has been a pleasing outcome and we have seen potential leaders emerge during production work. Perhaps the most difficult lesson we have learned is that good work takes time. Television production, for the most part, cannot be shortened successfully to artificially fit within a small number of lessons. Our studio work mirrors the real world and the processes of pre-production, production and post-production are time consuming. For those willing to spend the time the rewards have
been worthwhile.

We have gained so much from our studio that this year sees the opening of our second studio and we are looking forward to investigating new ways of making use of the technology. Our wish list for future projects includes using a product called Voodoo to place the animated Blender models created by students into hand-held video footage to seamlessly integrate the two. We are also looking at a product called Daz Studio 3D to create photographic quality scenes such as medieval villages for our students to create and act in.

An important aspect of our project is sharing our experiences and discoveries with other schools. To do this we have developed a web site for our studios (www.yarrahills.vic.edu.au/yhtv ) in which we are publishing some of our videos, technical details of our equipment, links to web sites and free downloads and a discussion forum where interested teachers can share their own experiences. Our television productions are not a panacea for all our classroom ills but the work in our television studio has shown great promise and we are keen to share it with the wider education community.

Stephen Blackwell is eLearning Leader at Yarra Hills Secondary College in Mooroolbark, Victoria and is responsible for the television studios. His passion lies in the use of technology to create rich learning experiences for students and he believes that television production fits that passion. Stephen has been involved in IT since writing his first program for a mini-mainframe while at high school.

As a teacher, Stephen has moved from the Apple through to BBC, Acorn and currently PC. Stephen loves programming and writes software for both his and
other local schools in both visual BASIC (asp) and php. Stephen runs several websites including the school’s television site which can be accessed at
www.yarrahills.vic.edu.au/yhtv.

 

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Education Technology Solutions has been created to inspire and encourage the use of technology in education. Through its content, Education Technology Solutions seeks to showcase cutting edge products and practices with a view to expanding the boundaries and raising the standards of education curricula. It introduces teachers and IT staff to the latest products, services and developments in education technology with a view to providing practical how-to guidance designed to facilitate the integration of those products and services into the school environment in the most productive and beneficial manner possible.
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