Universiteit Leiden

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Challenging the digital natives

How do you engage students in times of corona? Sara Brandellero, co-chair of the study programmes for Latin American studies, created assignments that require a wide-ranging set of skills. And the results were beautiful.

‘I wanted to do this for a while. The lives of students take place largely online and they’re quite eager to develop their digital skills in an academic environment. So as an alternative to traditional presentations in class, often accompanied by Power Points, I asked them to produce an audiovisual essay of approximately 10 minutes.’

What did the Faculty board think of the idea?

‘They gave me a teaching innovation grant! It’s for a programme entitled ‘Breaking the Story: producing digital documentaries in assessment for literature and language learning’. The idea behind the title is to encourage students to think of the relevance and importance of what they learn in the classroom for their own lives and the society we live in. Another important goal was for students to advance their presentation skills.

I received the grant for a second year BA course on Brazilian literature, arts and culture, but I also introduced video essays in a MA course I co-teach.’

And then corona struck

‘Yes, suddenly there was the lockdown. I didn’t make the video essays compulsory, because of the situation we were in. Also because I wasn’t sure of the equipment that was available to students. And of course it was something quite new.

So students could simply opt for a more conventional presentation, but in fact all of them produced an audiovisual essay. They have been incredibly creative and resourceful, using their smartphones and whatever hardware and software they had available.’

Did the students ask for help?

‘Not once! In cooperation with ECOLe and a teaching assistant, Francianne dos Santos Velho, we put together a manual for video production and a collection of online resources. ECOLe also organised an online tutorial session.

For the students the essays were a challenging exercise, both in selecting digital materials and in editing. Another very important goal was learning to construct a strong argument that would run throughout the video.

The BA students had to present their spoken word in Portuguese. Often they repeated a take several times because they weren’t quite happy with the way they pronounced certain words, or the way the sentences came out. So the video essays were also enhancing language and storytelling skills, basically communication skills. That’s hugely important.’

What kind of essays did they produce?

‘In the BA course students could produce a video on any key Brazilian writer or work covered in the course: contextualising the work and producing some close analysis of the cultural object.

The master course was about literary and filmic representations of the city. I encouraged students to be creative, to also film outside, if they wished. They could also incorporate footage that they found online to reference existing films or literary works. So they produced impressive films, some with footage from Dutch locations as well as video essays on Paris, Mexico City, Manhattan and so on.

I asked students to upload their work the day before so everybody could watch it. That enabled us to have a discussion in class about not only the content, but also why students had made certain choices, why they filmed certain things and not other things. It was a very positive and exciting way of involving students. Not just as learners, but as producers of knowledge.

Will you be doing this more often?

‘I was very, very impressed with the works and the way students engaged with the subjects. I think producing the videos generally took them longer than it would have taken them had they just done an ordinary presentation. Because obviously there’s a lot of editing work to do. You can’t improvise. But I still got positive feedback from them. I will definitely keep using video essays as a tool. It’s a hugely rewarding medium.’

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