Teaching with Instagram video and other meditations on technology in the classroom

There are certain books we pick up again and again. We take delight in the characters, plots, and language because they are familiar. Or perhaps we revisit the same vacation spot year after year.

Repetition can be soothing and it can also be challenging. When working on a new skill we must repeat the same task countless times on our way to mastery. Oftentimes we take away new insight from repeating an experience, especially if a variable has changed. The same ballet can look wonderfully different when reinterpreted by a different director or dancers.

In 1899, Sarah Bernhardt commissioned a prose version of Hamlet, and took on the titular role.  Library of Congress
In 1899, Sarah Bernhardt commissioned a prose version of Hamlet, and took on the titular role. Library of Congress

I was assigned Hamlet three times in high school: once as a freshman, once as summer preparation for an AP English class, and once over the course of that same AP class. My English teacher was well aware of the repetitive nature of his assignment, but he insisted on the value of reading a text like Hamlet over and over. Years later, I had a professor tell our class that he rarely annotated a book. Instead, he took notes on a separate piece of paper so that he could read the text with fresh eyes each time he came back to it.

Not only have I read Hamlet three times, but I’ve seen the play and a version of the movie a handful more. I’ve never seen Hamlet performed the way I did on The New York Times a few days ago. The newspaper asked high school and college students to submit an Instagram video of selected lines from Hamlet. The films that they produced are truly mesmerizing. You can see a selection of them here.

This project struck me as a fantastic and original assignment. Students had to memorize lines and probably make multiple takes. In doing so they not only learned the material, but also developed their own approaches. The videos range from elaborate underwater shoots to straightforward monologues in front of the camera.

Instagram supports a maximum of fifteen seconds of video, so students had to plan their shoots carefully. The call for videos issued in October cited a line spoken by Polonius in Hamlet: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” How do you say something meaningful in fifteen seconds? Students had to think about how to reframe fifteen seconds of Hamlet in their own terms. The quality of their submissions was probably enhanced by the fact that they were asked to work with a platform that made sense to them. When I was asked to make videos in high school and college I remember borrowing bulky and expensive equipment from my school. I had to learn to work with the equipment and editing programs. These students used smart phones and free app. They probably did not have to learn a new platform to make these videos. The people who responded to the call for videos were likely already Instagram users. Moreover, Instagram is designed to make amateur video and photos visually appealing.

Not only did this project ask students to use technology, but the choice of Instagram with its fifteen-second video maximum required students to be creative and precise in their thinking and execution. The variety of approaches to similar scenes or even the same lines in the play is striking.

There are myriad applications of technology for teaching, but this particular use strikes me as a model to strive for. The technological platform chosen perfectly suits the assignment and produced innovate results.

When I showed The New York Times project to a friend, she told me about a Motown class she took in college. The class was another instance where the instructor seemed particularly aware of the relationship between medium and message. In this case, however, the technology used in the classroom was not cutting edge, and it was not something most students owned. The professor required the students to listen to the Motown records in the library on a record player, which was a new experience for my friend who grew up in the days of cassettes and CDs. The professor argued that records should be listened to on the technological platform for which they were made. He trained them to listen to the transition between songs, to actively hear the pause in the music when they flipped the record, and to relish the experience of listening to a record from beginning to end. He taught history with historically appropriate technology, and it was effective and poignant for his students.

The act of using an unfamiliar technology can be a learning experience in and of itself. I once had the opportunity to make a print from a replica hand press while taking a seminar on early modern books. Operating the machine helped me better understand the books produced by the hand-press. It made clear how certain anomalies showed up in the pages of these books and how labor intensive the process of making them was. On the most basic level, it helped me understand the workings of the machine, which were much more difficult to sort out in diagrams and even video demonstrations.

An early modern printing press and Instagram have very little in common, but in the end, they are both forms of technology. A historical technology like the printing press, or now even a record player, might seem more appropriate than Instagram for serious learning applications, but I think The New York Times and probably countless other projects of which I am unaware has proved otherwise.

Do you use technology to engage students? What platforms or devices have you found particularly useful? How has technology helped you rethink assignments, and what kinds of things have your students produced?