To Attract Students, Professors Produce Hollywood-Style Previews (CHE)

April 6, 2015

After 25 years as a typographical designer, Richard Hunt knows the value of visual communication — which makes it a little ironic that his online course at OCAD University, an art-and-design college in Ontario, initially released lectures in an audio-­only format. Last year students accustomed to on-campus learning felt that Mr. Hunt’s “History and Evolution of Typography” course needed greater visual engagement than lecture slides could provide. This fall Mr. Hunt, an assistant professor, hopes to correct that, starting with a video trailer that went live just a few weeks ago. “We thought a trailer would put a face to the voice,” he says.

The new course trailer, released on the college’s internal network and on YouTube, begins with a simple shot of Mr. Hunt speaking. “It’s a way of selling the course to students who resist the online format,” he says.

Course trailers have become increasingly common at universities across North America, as a strategy for attracting students and for putting a public face to the institutions. Several universities have set up official media teams to help faculty members create them. Though such videos seem like a natural development in an age of online and multimedia coursework, they’ve also entered the brick-and-mortar classroom, signaling that a branding tactic once reserved for the marketplace has entered the marketplace of ideas.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the first-ever course trailer, but they began to appear within a few years of the 2005 launch of YouTube. Harvard University was an early adopter, in part because students there spend the first week of the semester “shopping” for courses they may want to take. Short videos can be shared across social networks to boost student interest and attendance, and as Mr. Hunt’s trailer suggests, they have an intimacy that course catalogs and posters lack. Course trailers have now been used at institutions including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Ottawa, and Baylor and Brown Universities.

In addition to their logical home on the Internet, trailers have found their way into the classroom. On the first day of class in Harvard’s most popular undergraduate course, Computer Science 50, the lights dim in a wood-paneled theater that seats 1,000 students. A nostalgic pop song plays from the speakers, and students watch a series of video clips from the prior year. At first, says the professor, David J. Malan, “it was just to get them excited in those first three minutes of class.”

Though the course teaches computer languages like C, PHP, and JavaScript, Mr. Malan has learned to borrow the visual language of film. “We’ve taken it, I dare say, to a different level,” he says. Students in 2014 watched time-lapse sequences styled after the TV show House of Cards,and learned of a Yale University collaboration from a video that featured Sesame Street puppets. Such stylized videos may have no clear connection to course content, but they shape the identity of the course.

[full article here.]

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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