Production as Plugin: Method Complexity

Complexity of the work students do can vary from one assignment to another, but the core difference is about the number of separate actions or skills a student needs to execute effectively in order to produce an assignment submission. So if the assignment is asking the student to show satisfactory understanding of the concept of video editing, say, then a simpler version of the assignment might be pared down significantly in range and depth, focusing on even one single skill such as matching an outgoing clip’s out point with an incoming clip’s in point. By contrast, the more complex version of that same assignment could include a wide range of necessary editing skills – sequencing, pacing, rhythm, narrative alignment, cause-effect chain management, emotional engagement, and on and on – as well as considerable depth in each of these, asking students not only to show they can accomplish these tasks, but challenging them to develop nuance within their own work, consider their personal style as editors, think critically about each one’s role in the overall project, be self-reflective about the benefits and challenges of working with the video medium, and so forth. So the question I want to raise here is, what does thinking about complexity add to the design process for these methods?

First, a reminder of the methods we’re considering (for now; it’s certainly possible that this work I’m engaged in will uncover others as well).

  • Prep exercises/assignments
  • In-class workshops
  • Additional workshops
  • Exemplars
  • Peer learning
  • Faculty-guided self-learning
  • Simple self-learning

Again, these were arranged roughly according to time commitment from most to least, so there is no structured relationship to complexity here. Instead, each has the potential to be incorporated into a course with more or less complexity. But imagine multiple different versions of in-class workshops, where students are asked to work on a video creation task like recording a video clip with their camera, say. There are more and less complex versions, with the most simple taking the form of something like “turn on your camera, press record, count to five, and then press record again,” and the most complex comprising a wide range of different camera-related skills that could take up an entire course. Any of these seven methods for video assignment learning support can be structured with more or less complex elements.

One concept that can be of some use here, it seems to me, is Bloom’s Taxonomy. Though there are certainly issues (for example) worth addressing with this concept, and we should not apply this unilaterally to the question of video assignment design, the core approach to analysis of learning processes in the Taxonomy is also one of complexity. Patricia Armstrong, writing for the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching notes that the six categories “all [lie] along a continuum from simple to complex and concrete to abstract,” with what visually are the “lower” levels but in this sense we might instead consider the “earlier” one generally requiring less complexity, and the “later” categories requiring more.

For example, I have made several different kinds of video editing assignments over the years, both at different levels of course complexity, such as Digital Video Production I versus II or Elements of Media Making versus Advanced Video Production, as well as in different learning contexts, where the depth of video editing skill has been lesser or greater, as in these courses above that are focused entirely on production skills, versus courses like Viewers, Users and Fans (a course about media consumption and use) or my film noir course, where the focus is on a topic, concept, or medium, and video creation is one of several different kinds of student work present in those courses for a much more specific purpose and therefore requiring much less video creation skill complexity than the former group. If you look through those assignments, you will notice how these two axes – introductory versus advanced and production- versus studies-focused – shape the criteria for the assignment in terms of length, topic range, and number of separate criteria for evaluation. We might lay that out in a simple chart as follows:


My thought here is just that, when it comes to the movement through Bloom’s categories (and really, I’m looking at the Revised categories published in 2001), we can see an alignment with what they were hoping to catalogue about learning with their taxonomy and the way I’m thinking about complexity with regard to video assignment design.

In addition to this simple structure, there is another important concept the Taxonomy raises for me worth touching on, which has to do with the reason the categories are arranged in the order they are, and that is the notion of progression. In Bloom’s (original or revised), a learner who has mastered a later category for a given field of knowledge may be assumed to have mastered the earlier ones as well. For example, trying to Evaluate before you have learned to Analyze is likely to lead to thin, overly simplistic conclusions and judgments. Will Fastiggi makes this point clearly:

“As Bloom’s taxonomy is a hierarchy of progressive processes ranging from the simple to the complex, in which it is necessary to first master those lower down the pyramid before being able to master those higher up, the framework promotes what Bloom termed ‘mastery learning’. In other words, by moving up the taxonomy, students become more knowledgeable, more skilled and develop an improved understanding of the content they are learning.”

“Applying Bloom’s Taxonomy to the Classroom,” Will Fastiggi

So if look more closely at the Advanced Video Production project above, you’ll notice that a fundamental part of that assignment is not only to create a narrative fiction video with certain specific parameters, but also to write an extended reflection about the process of producing it, in which students engage with some important metacognitive questions about that process of creation. I require this in that class because as an advanced production-focused course, part of what I’m asking students to do is operate at a high level of complexity, weaving together discrete recall and understanding of things like screenwriting and video camera technology, apply them in the creation of a new work, but also to be noting, through analysis, the distinct elements of that process of creation and then produce a detailed evaluation of it against their initial goals for it when they began the course. I don’t ask them to move through the categories in a sequential fashion, but I do expect them to be able to do them all for this project. In various ways, none of my other courses require such a holistic approach to Bloom’s six categories of learning when it comes to video assignments: they are all less complex, but that is completely fine, even appropriate, given the role each video assignment plays in those courses.

Again, I don’t want to overemphasize the value of this model, especially since learning rarely happens in neat, ordered sequences where we first fully master analysis before we ever evaluate anything. But the point is not to suggest this, I don’t think, but rather to note that more complex thinking, making, and learning necessarily builds on more simple first steps: crawl, walk, run. When we are thinking about any assignment design, we should keep this in mind. With video assignments, where the last level of Creation is such a fundamental engine to the learning that happens during their production, thinking about and making plans to address complexity in our assignment designs should be key.

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