Having a Blast

[As ever, this is on the BBC News website]

I have spent a significant chunk of the past four days teaching a group of young people how to make radio and television, working with the fantastic team from the BBC’s Blast on Tour project.

They are the real-world bit of Blast, the BBC’s youth creativity service, offering all the stuff that you can’t do so well on a website like free workshops in dance, fashion, music, animation and, of course, film and radio.

Last week they were on Parker’s Piece in Cambridge with a modern mobile digital studio built into a lorry and three marquees for dance workshops.

They’re off to Sheffield next, and then to London for a special show at the Serpentine Gallery, and fortunately the rain held off over the weekend so they didn’t have to churn through the mud as they left Cambridge!

The group I was working with were part of the Cambridge Film Festival’s ‘Young Person’s Jury’.  They get to watch and review films, discuss work with filmmakers and generally get involved in the Festival, and in return they write reviews.

Until now it has all been very print-oriented, with reviews printed in the Festival daily newspaper or posted onto the website, and I’m surprised they don’t get issued with those green sun visors we see editors wearing in every old Hollywood movie about newspapers.

This year, thanks to the tie-up with the BBC, it was very different. The team had access to the latest digital cameras and audio recording equipment, fully-configured laptops with editing software, a studio where we could record face-to-face interviews, and a lot of technical support.

They also had access to the professionals, which made it very special. The Blast team themselves are just the sort of people you want around you in a crisis, able to offer help, guidance, support and always able find just the right bit of equipment to make everything work.

And there were tutorials from the team at BBC Cambridgeshire showing how to operate a camera, do an interview or give an unscripted report direct to camera.

But the real buzz came from having real filmmakers to interview. April and Tim, the director and writer of the sparkling Canadian comedy and festival favourite ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’, let themselves be interviewed four separate times, and the producer, director and some of the actors from the Liverpool-based ‘Under the Mud’ were also willing to be quizzed over and over again

Watching the young people during the sessions I realised that I wasn’t actually teaching them very much at all. They were simply absorbing everything that was presented to them, adding it to the store of media skills they already had and figuring out how they could this new stuff to make their own work even better.

Their expertise was made abundantly clear to me when we sat down to edit the material we’d gathered. I suggested that they use Apple’s iMovie to make a video, since it is simple, easy to pick up and generally does a decent job.  They weren’t having any of it, and wanted to use the professional product, Final Cut Pro.

I realised then that I was out of my depth, as I’ve never done any serious video editing. I make a good facilitator, and I’m good at problem solving, but it was pointless to pretend that I was an expert on the software. Fortunately they were very nice to me about it, and even showed me some of the more complicated stuff.

Making TV and radio for oneself is an important part of self-expression in the digital age, but it is also a way of improving one’s understanding of media generally.

One of the main concerns that media regulator Ofcom has about the new generation of online services is that there is no easy way to control what appears. Regulating television in the UK is easy because you need a license to broadcast and Ofcom can take that license away if you don’t follow the rules.

You can’t do that as easily with a website, as those trying to control the distribution of illegal material have found over the years. When it comes to keeping children away from unsuitable material it is completely unmanageable.

So Ofcom is moving to a model where consumers take control themselves, but that implies a degree of media literacy so that people understand how to search safely, how to filter content and also how to decide whether a website is likely to be suitable.  After all, some parents might assume that hotbabes.tv is likely to be a perfectly innocent website about fever in young children.

Learning by doing is often far more effective than other teaching methods, not least because the effort needed to create something forces the learner to pay attention to what is going on. You can’t sit quietly in the back of the class texting your friends if you’re expected to produce a five minute video.

Watching the group at Blast these past few days it was obvious that a lot of younger people are already pretty media literate, but those who know and understand the most are the ones who do it for themselves.

As things stand the ones who are making their own stuff will be those who attend good schools, or have parents who can provide them with home computers, video cameras and the other tools needed to make their own content, and we need to do something about this.

Blast is a start, making an effort to reach out to the sorts of children who don’t have easy access to cool toys, but we can do more.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (formerly the DfES) has a programme under way to provide home computers for low-income families.  Perhaps Ofcom should put some pressure on then to add a digital video camera to the package, and see what impact being able to make their own movies has on their understanding of the modern media.

Bill’s Links
Rock, Paper, Scissors:
Under the Mud:
Ofcom media literacy:
Computers for Pupils: