Misuse of Film in the Classroom

Wes Fryer's website, Moving at the Speed of Creativity, offers fascinating insights on K-12 education and technology integration. It's one of the "must-read" blogs in our field. On January 11, Wes posted a fascinating article reflecting on a particular situation involving the misuse of media in the classroom. To his chagrin, Wes discovered that his son, who is a middle-school student, will be watching 10 popular children's films in his Leadership class. Films include Mulan, Toy Story 1 and 2, and the Bee Movie, among others. When the permission letter came home, authorizing parental permission for viewing full-length movies, Wes wondered about the issue, writing, "It seems like a GREAT idea for a teacher to use excerpts and clips from movies to illustrate leadership principles and concepts, but it does NOT seem legit to show ten full length DVD movies in class to ostensibly achieve this same purpose."

He invited his many readers to reflect on the legal and pedagogical issues involved, and asked "What Would Renee Hobbs Do?"  How very flattering! Thanks, Wes! So here's my two cents:

1. It's legal. Section 110 of the Copyright Act of 1976 authorizes teachers to use whole films for educational purposes. Surprisingly, one of the teachers on Wes Fryer's website noted that his school actually pays license fees to view this type of videos. (That may be needed if the film is used for entertainment purposes, like an evening fundraising event.) But when films are used for an educational purpose, Section 110 covers this practice 100%. Even if you use 10 or more movies in a semester, there's no need to pay license fees.

2. Is it educationally sound? That's the real issue. Please take a look at my article from Learning, Media and Technology, entitled "Non-Optimal Uses of of Video in the Classroom" to see just how common this practice is in K-12 environments. (Sadly, it's a bit of a problem at the college level, too.) Film is a powerful tool for learning. But too many teachers use it as a crutch, to fill time or as a substitute for genuine instruction. My research showed that many teachers use video and mass media in superficial and routine ways without much explicit reflection on their educational aims and goals. In my article, I offer a typology of misuses based on the observations and interviews I conducted.

While film and video use is common in American public schools, many teachers have not fully thought through their own educational goals and objectives for using these materials. Many of the educators who contributed to Wes Fryer's blog post agreed, noting the colossal waste of time involved, given students' extreme familiarity with these texts.

in many cases, a carefully-selected 10-minute clip from these videos would be more than adequate to launch a meaningful discussion. Media literacy educators might also ask students to watch videos at home and select scenes for themselves that reflect a key idea. Students could make oral presentations where they play a short clip they have selected themselves and talk about it, applying a key concept.

3. How do educators or students make a clip reel? Under the doctrine of fair use, teachers and students are legally allowed to make film clip compilations.  But it's hard to do this ever since the VHS tape disappeared. In my testimony to the U.S. Copyright Office on May 6, 2009, I note this irony, explaining that the rise of the DVD player has inadvertently made it more difficult to use film in educationally sound ways in the classroom. Why?  Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it's illegal to bypass the encryption codes on DVDs which "lock up" the content. This discourages educators from using excerpts and promotes the time-wasting practice of watching whole films. On behalf of educators and students, I've asked the Copyright Office to grant an exemption that would make it legal for educators and students to "rip" DVDs for educational purposes. We'll find out sometime soon if this exemption is granted.Stay tuned!

3. How best to engage in dialogue with teachers about misuses of film? In his blog post, Wes recognizes the need to say something to the teacher. It's important to decide how and when to do this -- and how to do it in a way that leads to teacher growth and development. I raised this issue with my kids' teachers -- and discovered for myself that it can be complicated for parents to offer feedback on the educational decision-making of their children's teachers.  Think about it this way: many teachers are simply reproducing practices that they remember from their own childhood. Some are astounded to discover that other educators find these practices problematic  because the overuse/misuse of film is a longstanding tradition in many American school settings.

But it's the plain truth that showing whole films is a strategy used by many teachers who don't have the imagination or skills to use classroom time more productively. It takes time to select and cue up clips. It takes imagination to set up engaging learning experiences that capitalize on the intense vitality of a Hollywood produced movie. (And students will always groan when you stop the film to start discussion!) School leaders need to promote more strategic use of video and expect that teachers invest time and energy into selecting and using video resources wisely and well.