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Copyright © 2004 -
Information Today, Inc.

Class Act: Learning Channel
Posted Jun 27, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1

I was watching television with my children one night recently when their favorite yellow-square-porous character came on. During the episode, the irrepressible SpongeBob was frantically trying to hold on to his boat while being towed behind like a water skier. In steadfast determination, he yelled out that he would never let go. The boat swung wildly around to reveal a sign, warning, "Giant Clams—Straight Ahead." The Square-Panted One let out a frightened yell as the boat dragged him through the field of clams snapping him along the way. Next the boat veered around a bend to reveal another sign: "Cheese Graters." He screamed even louder than before as he got sliced into several indistinguishable shapes. After he emerged from the field of cheese graters, he reasserted his determination to hold on at all costs. The boat made one last swerve in an attempt to rid itself of its unwanted tag-along. At that moment he saw another roadside sign that would surely guarantee his ultimate demise. Its implications were far worse than anything he'd seen before. Reading the words Educational Television, SpongeBob screamed in terror at his horrific fate.

It occurred to me that some people really do believe that watching educational programming is a bizarre form of torture. Since I now work in an educational environment, this topic takes on special significance for me. Actually, a large part of video and postproduction work in the U.S. has an educational component to it. Whether it's training for a new sales promotion or documenting the salt levels in the Gulf of Mexico, a good portion of today's video work is attempting to educate the viewer on some level.

So, how did educational TV get the reputation of being so boring? Which came first? The dull content or the unimaginative writer/director who couldn't make it interesting? Therein lies the cycle of dry content that needs to be made into a video, and the directors/editors who are less than excited to work on it. And from there the situation feeds itself; unattractive topics drawing uninterested video creators.

I, too, bought into this stereotype until my first experience creating an educational video. It was then that I realized what a stimulating challenge it is to create an interesting and compelling video out of potentially dull material. And beyond pouring creativity into the production itself, it is self-motivating to work with a client or professor to attempt to translate their dry ideas into something more entertaining.

In cases like these, you're often working with people who don't habitually communicate through visual media, and it's your responsibility to educate them (even if they, technically, are the educators) in how to adapt their approach to use video effectively. I've gone rounds with clients and professors, explaining that you don't have to beat the viewer over the head for them to understand an idea or a concept. Nor do you need to go into every detail of a particular topic from start to finish. In fact, it's a good idea to leave out some elements of the subject (that's where our talents come in—even during pre-production). As someone once put the question to me, "Do you want the viewer to have every detail explained to them, or do you want the viewer to develop an interest to find out on their own?" It's like leaving them with a lingering curiosity.

Regardless of your approach, you may still find yourself struggling in vain to convince a client to consider a more entertaining approach. You can't make every doodle into a Mona Lisa. Sometimes when a company needs to shoot a training video highlighting their new industrial machine oil, you do just that. Or, in our case, if your job is to demonstrate the procedure for dissecting a lab rat, you give them what they want and move on to the next project.

Still, I wonder about those of us in an educational setting. Are we challenging ourselves enough technically and creatively to make our videos entertaining? Are we successful in instructing the viewer without boring them so much that their minds start wandering three minutes in to the segment?

Thankfully, our outlook toward educational programming has shifted somewhat. With the increased popularity of the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and even the Food Network, these targeted cable networks have succeeded in raising the bar of what is expected of educational programming. Truth is, even before I started working in academia, most of my favorite channels were of an educational nature. But the growing popularity of these types of programming is a more recent development.

The good news is, people are starting to take notice. Educational programming doesn't have to be boring—for the viewer or the producer. One of the things that appears to hold true for the informative television that I've been watching is, when the people making the video are passionate about or having fun with the subject (or both), it shows through in the video. Think if you will about all those crazy chefs running around in a frenzy and yelling on TV—people love them. Why? It‘s simply that they love what they're doing! They've become the most popular set of technical communicators on the planet. People don't mind learning (and even occasionally learn without noticing) when they're watching TV if the people involved are enjoying themselves and proud of their project.

So, if you find yourself involved with an educational project, remember there's no law that says your audience has to dread watching it, and there's no point in making the video if everyone's going to tune it out—yourself included.

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