Researchers Call Digital Videos "Super Tool" that Infuses even Disaffected Students with Enthusiasm for Learning

Project uses digital technologies in new ways -- with results they call "amazing"

Release Date: June 17, 2003 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- An education researcher in the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education working with disaffected urban students says a project involving students in the Buffalo Public Schools shows that digital video technology is a teaching and learning "super tool" that can transform urban teaching and have enormous positive effects for poor and minority children in urban schools.

These are, of course, the very schools that have little such technology available to them.

Suzanne M. Miller, Ph.D., associate professor in the school's Department of Learning and Instruction, is heading a three-year digital video (DV) project titled "City Voices, City Visions" (CVCV) that involves the introduction and qualitative study of digital-video technology as a learning tool with students in grades six through 12 in 10 low-performing Buffalo schools.

As she begins the third year of the project, Miller says the experience has shown that digital video production, when integrated into the curriculum as a learning tool, not only activates and engages students in the learning process, but produces a richness of learning that she calls "amazing." Videos produced by the students may be viewed at

This year the researchers will begin to assess its effect on student achievement levels.

"Although we began the project with a notion of integrating DV technology, we now understand that DV is also an art that demands and provides a sort of 'super-integration' of meaning; the possibility of total coordination, even fusion, of intellect, emotion and identity."

Her conclusions are drawn from the observation of the processes involved in teaching and learning with DV production and from interviews with the 30 teachers in the project. Miller says the outcomes have been so remarkable that she now is developing a theory to explain the success of teaching with DV.

"City Voices, City Visions," a broad partnership involving UB, the Buffalo Public Schools and the community, is a coordinated attack on the learning problems faced by Buffalo students using multimedia technologies in ways never used before. For the last two years, it has trained Buffalo teachers in the use of new technologies and their application in the classroom, while Miller and her research team have simultaneously studied the outcomes.

Students involved in the project attend school more, are more engaged in the curriculum and learning concepts and demonstrated much enthusiasm for what they were doing, Miller notes. While developing the videos to explain or elaborate upon particular concepts, she says, the students came to understand the material much better than expected based on their past performance.

Miller says, "Research has repeatedly shown that images often precede language comprehension. DV production combines visualization -- the 'image'-- with narration and music; it is a powerful mediation tool for learners. It employs the visual, oral and aural senses in pursuit of comprehension."

She says that CVCV's experience to date indicates digital video or DV technology is a tangible and potent mediator in the construction of learning because it offers a variety of opportunities for symbolic expression.

"The creation of images that carry meanings and distill experience into visual concepts is central to 'visual learning,'" she explains, "and visual learning is a vital means by which we make sense of the world."

Teachers have been willing and able to move beyond traditional notions of literacy and learning, take up digital video and put it to work with their students, Miller says. "With teacher support, not only did students meet learning standards in the context of meaningful technological activity, but in the process, learned social and literacy strategies as well."

These explanations of the influence of DV on learning do not, however, capture the depth of the engagement, the joy of the learning, the heartfelt expression in some of the DV activity and production, according to Miller.

She says education research has proven that the innovative use of multimedia technology in schools can improve teaching and learning dramatically. All students benefit from the skilled use of critical technologies, with particularly impressive results among low-achieving students with literacy problems.

"When urban students have such opportunities to reconstruct who they are in school through activities that help them redefine just what it is that 'counts' as learning, we believe remarkable things can happen. This is a 'super tool' that helps students move out of passivity, alienation, and powerlessness and gets them engaged not only in learning, but in understanding how and why we learn," Miller says

However useful the tools, teachers in financially strained urban districts and under-funded schools that need it the most have few opportunities to learn the effective use of these technologies. Not only is access to advanced technologies severely limited, but so is training addressing their wise use in literacy and subject-matter learning.

Miller says that, unfortunately, the urban context for schooling often has been bound up by bureaucracy, lack of communication and disrespect for teachers and students. Teachers often do not know what they will be teaching until days before school begins, which doesn't allow for the professional reflection and revision many teachers engage in over the summer.

"The next step is to study the achievement levels of the students involved, which their teachers say went up, particularly among students who previously were disaffected," Miller explained.

"We learned that much depended on the willingness of teachers to push on and find ways to make innovation succeed," Miller says, "and to that extent, it is the teachers' perceptions and their teaching, not just the technology, that has made 'City Voices, City Visions' work. These teachers were able and willing to transform themselves so that they could promote the transformation of their students."

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