Digital Toolkit, Part 2: Evaluating Podcasts and Videos
If you’re interested in teaching with technology, you have likely thought about creating assignments around podcasting or video for your students (and if you haven’t, you can read my post on how to do it).
However, one big hurdle for many instructors is the question of how to evaluate these projects, especially if they have never created one themselves. In this post, I’ll help bridge this gap, and hopefully push some of you to try an assignment like this, by outlining the main components of my own rubric for evaluating narrative media projects (for a closer look, you can see how I outline it in the assignment).
Narrative media projects typically involve either audio only, or audio and video together, so I’ll start by outlining what I look for in a good audio piece.
Length: Given the content, is the audio the right length? Is it long enough to tell me everything I need to know, and short enough to hold my attention? I generally ask students to produce pieces that are around 5 minutes long. Seasoned podcasters may be able to produce riveting longer-form stories, but it takes an incredible amount of skill (and time) to do so.
Sound quality: I allow my students to use whatever they have on hand to record their audio pieces. Depending on the student, this may be their phone, their laptop, or something more ancient like a desktop computer with a microphone. I try to take these limitations into account as I consider the quality of the audio, but they should still be trying their best to capture good-quality sound. I think about these questions: did they pay attention to audio levels when recording—is it loud enough? Is there any distortion? Is there distracting background noise that could have been avoided? Are there pops, clicks, or dropouts?
Editing: When I assign and audio project, I give students an example of a raw audio and the edited result so that they can understand how much needs to get cut. Ideally, they should edit out any extraneous words (ums and uhs, as well as phrases that don’t make sense or are repetitive), pauses, breaths, and other distracting noises. If they have scripted their audio recording, less editing will be needed; if they are starting with a conversation or an extemporaneous recording, editing will need to be more thorough.
Comprehensibility: This aspect is harder than you might think. As I mentioned in my previous post on podcasting, audio projects push students to really think about why the things they are saying matter, and how to make them interesting. So, it’s important to ask: does the audio make sense? Does it tell a story? Does it all hang together to make a coherent point?
Quality of the content: Finally, as with any academic project, we have to ask whether the project was rigorously thought out. In my class, I have the students create an annotated bibliography before embarking on their media project. When listening to their audio, I ask, did the student obviously do their research? Is what they found correct? Did they contribute something in terms of synthesis or analysis? Some faculty may worry that the technical bells and whistles associated with a media project might overshadow the content. As I discussed in my previous post on this topic, I have actually found that the podcast format forces most students to be even more rigorous about their research and analysis. Ironically, the absence of the trappings of the traditional research paper seems to push students to rethink the stakes of their statements, resulting in more interesting and, to my mind, often higher-quality projects.
A good video project is always built on a quality audio recording or a well thought-out script, so it’s important to make sure that students have this part of their project well in hand before moving on to making a video. In my class, I allowed students to make very rudimentary videos after having spent the bulk of the term doing research and creating well-crafted audios. However, if you assign a more elaborate video project, here’s what I recommend looking for.
Audio and video sync: Do the images in the video help tell the story that is being presented in the audio? Do they line up with what is being said? Ideally, the video should augment the audio by not only illustrating what is said, but providing viewers with additional details and providing a visual counterpoint to the narration.
Transitions: Do the cuts, fades/dissolves, or other transitions between the images make sense, or are they distracting? Do they come at the right times? If the student used transitions like dissolves or wipes, are they the right length? Are they jarring (in a bad way)?
Still image quality: Are the images high-resolution? I have students spend a fair amount of time on image search for their projects to ensure that they have images that show good detail, proper color, and are not compressed or pixelated. Now that most video is very high resolution on YouTube and other online platforms, this is really important.
Video quality: If the student shot actual video of someone or something (which I don’t necessarily recommend, at least for art history videos—it brings in a host of other issues), does the video help tell the story? Standards for video have changed a lot in the era of YouTube, so I don’t hold students to television production standards, but at the very least, if there is actual video in the video, its presence should make sense and not be distracting.
Layout: If multiple images are shown, or images are not full-screen, are they laid out in a way that conforms to good design principles? Are they aligned, centered, or otherwise arranged in a thoughtful way?
Text or other annotations: Are text or other graphics used to explain things in the video? If so, is the text readable and well-formatted? Does it follow good design principles? Does it appear and disappear at the right times?
It takes a lot of practice to create great audios and videos. Most students’ first projects aren’t fit for prime time. However, I have found that the process of creating narrative media assignments inspires students to think in new ways, discover new parts of themselves, and look at their research differently. I ask them to reflect on this process in the final assignment for the class: a short paper that synthesizes what they have gained and how it might be useful to them in other contexts. I encourage you to try it in your own classroom, and I hope that, if you were feeling stymied by a lack of tools for assessment, my lists above will allow you to confidently take the leap.