The institutional context

The PowerPoint music video assignment is used by instructors at NDSU as the first part of a unit about new literacy.  This unit is typically the third unit in the English 110 course, and English 110 is the first course in a two-course composition sequence.  NDSU uses only minimal placement procedures, so most first-year students are enrolled in English 110, and students' experiences and abilities are diverse.  The instructors who teach the music video assignment also tend to work with music and popular culture as subject matter throughout the course, and the five teacher-researchers identified their course theme as "writing about and with music." 

When students start the assignment, however, they have done little or no multimodal composing in class.  They may have inserted an image of a musician or band when completing a review, or they may have inserted a personal photo or two into their memoir, but they have not yet worked with mp3 or other sound files in class, and they have not worked with software other than word processing software.  The first-year composition program's overriding philosophy is defined as a "genre-based rhetorical approach," so when students encounter the new-to-the-class, but familiar-to-them genre of music video, we instructors do hope that students see that their multimodal composing task will include understanding and working with generic conventions. 

We also provided a set of models (standard for our approach) of PowerPoint videos, acknowledging that students are not familiar with how the genre of music video can be remediated to PowerPoint.  Three of the five teacher-researchers showed one of David Byrne's videos from EEEI, and all of us showed a set of three videos produced by students in 2004.  We chose the three student models because they represented different sub-genres of music videos, and the authors of these videos used different techniques, producing very different products. 

  1. A traditional music video: animated gifs of cartoon representations of The Beatles performing a Death Cab For Cutie song.  The video is very clean in its design, making use of bold reds and yellows, a variety of moving shapes, and text to support the chorus, in addition to the animated gifs.
  2. A trip video: a school trip to France illustrated primarily with personal photos, set to a French pop song.  Most slides were layered with photos and included information about the pictures—a vacation slideshow with textual rather than verbal narration.
  3. A conceptual video: a series of images of women, ranging from Hillary Rodham Clinton and Janet Reno to Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, set to Bette Midler's "I am Beautiful."  The student author offered advice to Britney Spears and the other popular culture figures like "Find your Light," and in doing so, the video seemed to imply that the public/political figures are the beautiful ones, and the performers seek after a fleeting beauty.   

All three of the videos made use of a full song, a feature that caused some frustration and confusion for students in 2005.  The Technology Learning Center on campus, which had provided support for the project in 2003 and 2004, asked us to be more cautious with fair use guidelines in 2005, so we asked student to use one of the following approaches.

a) A song in the public domain and or a song that was available under an appropriate Creative Commons License.

b) A song the student received permission to use from the artist or copyright holder.

c) Thirty second loops or splices, in accordance with fair use guidelines.

d) A song of their own creation—an mp3 from their own band, a song created in GarageBand or other electronic composing software, or other unique compositions for which they would be the copyright holder, albeit an unregistered copyright holder.

This complication of the assignment turned out to create a much richer learning experience for all involved, as we will elaborate below. We provided students with an extensive list of websites that provide free, public domain images, and we gave students a similar list of links to public domain/Creative Commons mp3 or WAV files.  We asked them to storyboard their video and seek feedback (emulating the peer review process used throughout the semester), and we asked them to read the chapter on visual communication in our program's textbook, John Trimbur's A Call to Write , Brief 3rd Edition, and apply the four basic gestalt principles defined in that chapter. 

The four GTAs arranged to have a Student Technology Worker from the Technology Learning Center provide a 50-minute presentation on the advanced features of PowerPoint relevant to this assignment.  Students were given two or three class periods in which they could get trouble-shooting help from their instructor or go to the Technology Learning Center to work with Sound Forge (digital audio editing software produced by Sony and only available in the TLC), or scanning, or photo editing.  In the new-literacy spirit of do-it-yourself learning, the teacher-researchers tried to create the kinds of guides and support conditions that would allow students to be creative, independent learners. 

Danielle Nicole DeVoss, Ellen Cushman and Jeffery T. Grabill have documented the challenges of doing multimodal compositions within an infrastructure than cannot support such work, and as Brooks encouraged wider use of the assignment, he realized the various institutional and technological constraints on such an assignment.  NDSU does not have a site license for Flash in the public clusters, so following Anthony Ellertson's lead and teaching music videos through Flash was out of the question.  NDSU currently maintains only two Mac clusters, so using iMovie for over 400 students was also out of the question. In 2005, we taxed the Technology Learning Center staff to their limit with 12 sections using the assignment, and we will have to determine if this assignment can be expanded any further.  One student we interviewed said he felt constrained by PowerPoint's limitations, and a few students simply went ahead and used Windows MovieMaker because they had access to it, but for infrastructure and pedagogical reasons, we will continue to ask students to compose their music video with PowerPoint. 

Finally, it is important to know that the GTAs at NDSU are all provided with Dell 505 laptops, enabling them to easily work with the 44 CDs their students turn in to complete this assignment.  If the GTAs had to share a single office computer with a 5:1 GTA-to-computer ratio, the ratio our department had in the fall of 2003, this assignment would become a burden to view, grade, and respond.