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Developing Distance Learning Modules for Film Studies Courses


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Developing Distance Learning Modules for Film Studies Courses

Technological development affected pedagogical practices in a radical manner over the past fifty years. The concept of distance learning signifies both the transformed nature of tutor and learner in contemporary, technologized societies and the new principles of the educational process. In this paper I outline the new methodological strategies that shape todays learning environments and later propose a case study, the application of theoretical considerations in the practice of developing a distance learning courseware for Film Studies modules.


In his influential book on technological development – Understanding Media – Marshall McLuhan argues for the transformed nature of human civilization and attempts to explore the impact of electronic media on human knowledge. In the introductory chapter he writes: „Today, after more than a century of electronic technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.” (3) Later McLuhan described t 424e47e he general framework of transformation that resulted in the establishment of automated information societies and reshaped the concepts of the individual and the community. This process involved the swift from an era of mechanical skills and knowledge towards one based on „an intense sensitivity to the interrelation and interprocess of the whole” (355) – the instant and organic complexity of information. One segment of the change involved the growing social pressure on the part of adults to return to the classroom and acquire various forms of expertise and skills. Thus, in the 60’s the fast-changing socio-economical environment brought about a new breed of students, namely adults, who had specific life situations, experiences, self-concepts and a new kind of readiness to learn. Their training required special teachers, didactic methods and philosophies and since they could not be treated as children the whole concept of adult education had to be rethought. The challenge was answered by andragogy, a field of research understood as „the discipline which studies the adult education process or the science of adult education” (Nottingham Andragogy Group, 1983: v). Andragogy concerns itself with the mapping up of the characteristics of the adult learners, who are more independent and self-directed human beings than children. The distinct nature of andragogy in relation to pedagogy can be best grasped in their understanding of the application of knowledge. While pedagogy places more emphasis on the conditioning of pupils to be subject-centered, andragogy is more concerned with a problem-centered approach to learning, stressing the need for immediacy and application. This focus on problem-centredness conceptualizes the orientation to learning as one shifting from a content model (pedagogy’s stress on the acquisition of subject matter) towards a process model, best revealed in the paradigm of andragogy arguing for learning to be focused on experiences. The distinctive nature of andragogy with its organic view of the learner and the learning process brings it close to McLuhan’s description of information society as a nervous system, the segments of which are interrelated and cannot be fragmented and portioned. In the next paragraph I will outline how the new understanding of the learning experience and the advances in the field of communication technologies came to collaborate.

The above discussed ideas of the late Sixties form a kind of middle point. A quarter of century earlier, in 1945 Vannevar Bush, working as an advisor to President Roosevelt, described the concept of an electronic library. His essay by the title As we May Think details an indexing system which offers new ways for scientists to share their research results. This was a kind of database that could be accessed from multiple locations synchronously and would operate on a single language and format, enabling the transferring of not only written records, but pictures and other visual data as well. With the running of automated indexing and search options the necessary data stored on microfilm could be accessed in a similar manner to someone using the loaning services of a giant library. The main pillars of this system – called Memex – relied on the simple operation of linking two items. Nearly fifty years after Bush’s concept of this virtual memory bank, in 1992, we witnessed the appearance of World Wide Web, the advanced multimedia environment of the Internet. The two main pillars of this global nervous system are the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and the HyperText Markup Language (HTML), which faithful to the original concept rely on the linking of specific data and creating records of their connections. In 1996 there were already approximately 500 thousand Internet domains all over the world, and it was also this year that the European Union, committed to the idea of using new technology based communication networks, announced lifelong learning to be one of its principle fields for the development of adult training.

The idea of lifelong learning, included within the conceptual framework of flexible and distance learning, gained more publicity due to the significant changes in demographic distribution and the renewed concerns to ensure that economic demands would be sufficiently supplied with the necessary skills. Advances in educational technologies, didactic strategies, or so called learning scenarios also stimulated the interest in distance learning, which was though of as a more individualized form of education. Early initiations targeted the enhancement of the European industry’s competitive edge, but the gained experience showed that such an educational initiative can be applied in higher education and teacher training as well. The main advantages of lifelong learning included the freer and more effectively structured environment of the learning process which was understood as an essential source of motivation for students. The widespread popularity of the Internet also meant that except for the communication costs it did not matter whether the learner was located next door or hundreds of kilometres away.

In Hungary the technological base for distance learning was and to some extent still is underdeveloped. Despite this fact, there is growing governmental commitment and interest on the part of university departments to participate in distance learning projects and develop multimedia coursewares. At the same time, there is an expanding demand among adults for such initiations. The biggest asset of these postgraduate courses, namely that learners do not have to take days off at their place of employment is in accordance with the basic philosophy of distance learning. With the development of the communication infrastructure in our country and the equipping of more and more workplaces and homes with optical fibre cable connections and up-to date PCs many potential learners will want to take part in courses that require computer mediated communication (CMC) and computer assisted instruction (CAI).

Study strategies for Distance Learning

As with most communication media, the Internet and related technologies were also put out before their full potentials were actually thought out. Although almost every academic professional and university and college student uses the Web for their research projects, the vast amount of information must be structured and tailored to be an effective tool of the learning process. Computer based tutoring, according to Lieve van den Brande, is a didactic strategy applied in a „stand-alone situation where no human tutor is available” (20). This results in a more or less learner-directed learning process and an evolving educational dialogue with the course material. Due to the fact that tutoring and monitoring is embedded within the system, the learner’s needs, capacity and desired style of learning must be set before composing the material to be presented. The courseware has to be shaped in a such a way as to represent a certain degree of discovery for the learner, nevertheless the tutor should also have control over the learner’s advancement. The system requires introductory problems, situations, arguments supplied by the tutor, but it is the learners who decide how to explore and develop these and raise further questions and/or counter-arguments. Control, thus is not primarily represented by the tutor, but the learner’s own capability to exercise critical and creative thinking, and synthesize different ideas. Another means of developing the explorative skills of the learner is to employ the Internet itself as the source of extensive hypermedia and multimedia databases and information resources. Due to its almost incomprehensible size, these learning environments are best explored by guided discovery tutoring. Learners navigating through vast databases must possess specific learning objectives in order to successfully embed the gained information into the learning environment of the courseware. The creation of personalized versions of locally stored information resources enables learners to isolate specific problems, relate them to the main body of the course and apply critically the new information. The task of structuring highly amorphous and unstructured information gives an opportunity to the tutor to asses the learner’s critical thinking.

This kind of intelligent tutoring system, supplying motivation for learners and feedback for tutors must possess a model of the learner. This requires the pre-estimation of the student’s learning capacities and the building of the system around this model. With the personalising of the learning process and the determination of the optimal degree of monitoring and tutoring the designers of the course material can also approximate the kind of guidance learners are likely to ask for. Having performed such „cognitive interpretation” of the learner, the most appropriate didactic strategy can be chosen. In the case of adult learners such cognitive interpretation/diagnosis can guarantee that they are not viewed as children, and by personalising the education process they are likely to give up some of their natural impatience towards being educated. Modelling includes the summing up of the conceptual and procedural knowledge of the learner, his/her mental capacities and competencies. According to den Brande the principles of cognitive interpretation models should be corrective (to eliminate errors in the learner’s knowledge); elaborative (to extend correct, but incomplete knowledge); strategical (to adapt didactic strategy to learner); diagnostic (to eliminate ambiguity) and evaluative (to verify the learner’s real knowledge) (26).

Whereas the correct modelling of the learner guides the developer of the course material to choose the right didactic strategies, collaborative learning (or learning as a group) eases the isolated situation of the distant learner. This specific type of learning scenario stimulates social interchange between learners at a distance, usually involving computer conferencing in the forms of free access chat rooms or discussion rooms. In case the necessary broadcasting services are available peer learning, coaching, tutoring and monitoring among the learners themselves are useful in expanding the scope of self-directed learning. In case collaborative learning is accomplished in a discussion room, the tutor may also be involved both as an ordinary user, or as a privileged one, guiding and moderating the exchange of opinions. This kind of monitoring allows tutors to follow the progress students make throughout the course and also gain effective feedback on the effectiveness of the courseware. When working out the monitoring role of the tutor one has to calculate the amount of attention necessary to be dedicated to each learner and relying on this determine the maximum number of students who can sign up for the course. There are differences in psychological capacity, but above a certain limit the performance of both tutor and learner is likely to decrease.

Practical Application – A Case Study

The validity of theoretically formulated learning scenarios and didactic strategies is best tested in real learning environments, in the modules of distance learning programs. The English-American Institute of the University of Debrecen has set up a distance learning program three years ago. The initiation was at the beginning supported by the British Council, at the moment it is run by the Institute alone. The course material is stored free of charge at a web-site, intended to support technology-based distance learning modules, maintained by the software giant Oracle Corp. At the present moment there are approximately a hundred students participating in the program, who have to take up 12 modules (8+4) during 6 semesters and submit a diploma thesis at the end of their studies. Since this program is an university level up-grading course, all of the participants have a college diploma and speak English fluently. In any case, the educational objective of the first two semesters is to bring even the language competencies of the students, thus the first year of training is understood as basic training, comprising two linguistic and two civilisation modules.

According to the general principles of designing the course material1, tutors should define the teaching aims and objectives as well as the competencies to be developed throughout the module. This can be best done by listing the titles of the sections and the units, including the main points, basic terms and key considerations of each item. It is also advised to identify the issues that are to be explored individually and also the teaching input – the nature of the tutorial guidance. It should also be made clear at the beginning how the candidate should use the materials of the module most efficiently, in regard to both the teaching and learning procedures. It is likewise necessary to mention details of the basic requirements – including the required reading material and the types of tasks to be accomplished – and reference to the kind of guidance they can request. Due to the nature of the training, learners are expected to deepen their competencies in several academic fields (including linguistics, teaching methodology, literature, drama and cultural studies) and advance their critical thinking and individual reflection. The required assignments are designed to facilitate these skills and have four basic types: collaborative learning in the form of peer contacts, a joint submission of a report based on these peer contacts, individually prepared minor papers and major research papers. General instructions also need to include the tutor’s policy concerning contacts (via email), the evaluation criteria and grading. The basic assessment criteria demand that the learner be able to use the acquired knowledge in a critical way; be capable of applying basic terms and the conceptual framework of the field of study; qualified to put forward logical arguments and be familiar with the usage of analytical skills while elaborating secondary sources. In the case of the major research papers, requirements concerning length, style, submission dates and plagiarism should be also included. In addition to these, an enclosed list of bibliographical items gives a clue for learners about the contents of the units and also serves as a starting point for individual research projects.

These guidelines serve as a framework for both tutor and learner to identify the basic inputs and outputs of the course and also help to schedule the tasks and duties of each side. While preparing the specific units, clear structure, coherence and the articulatedness of argumentation are points that the courseware developer must keep in mind. Clarity is best achieved by dividing each unit into subsections. Active learner participation is best achieved by building in regular questions after each descriptive paragraph. The three main types of questions are: (1) general questions which the students should ponder over; (2) specific questions that the learner needs to respond to by email; (3) questions that require an answer worked out on a collaborative basis through student-student interaction. Those questions belonging to the first type should be realted to an answer key given at the end of each unit. It is also suggested to include regular reviewing of the main issues at points in the text where the tutor feels it is fundamental that the learner understands the arguments being presented. The use of special typefaces – bold or italics lettering – helps learners to identify basic terms, expressions. In the case of the individual units a good structure means the fragmenting of the arguments and the inserting of questions, tasks, tables, pictures, along with recommendations of specific secondary sources within the longer descriptive/argumentative paragraphs. For the coherence and unity of the module it is also advised to link up units with lead ins.

The Introduction to Film Studies Module

This module builds on the guidelines put into practice by all course developers when producing their material. Applications relating to skills and knowledge to be learnt, ways of organising material, implementation of didactic strategies, requirements and the means of evaluation and assessment are in line with the principle philosophy of distance learning. The nature of the topics discussed also requires a more stressed utilisation of the multimedia environment. Strict copyright regulations concerning the use of primary sources does not enable the accessing of movie clips, as primary sources, through the Internet. This means that all required material must be made available in a resource centre, or the tutor has to give a list of films which are most likely to be found in school/public libraries or at the video rentals.

This module aims to

·         suggest theoretical and practical approaches to understand the cultural transition that signalled the shift from print culture to one relying on mechanically reproduced images

·         raise consciousness about the complex economic-social-political nature of cinema

·         develop a critical attitude towards the visual aspects of filmic texts

·         introduce the basic issues relating to cinematic equipment, film production, visual style and cinematic narration

·         provide a theoretical framework and give a historical overview of critical tendencies

·         invite learners to start guided individual research in the discussed topics, or any individual film that has been previously agreed upon with the tutor

At the end of the module, learners should

·         have an understanding of the role of cinematic representation within contemporary artistic practices

·         show awareness to the various means of approaching a film, be that a focus on thematic, stylistic, generic or narrative issues

·         be familiar with the basic cinematic discourses and have the capability to relate to them in a critical manner

·         connect up theory and practice by applying theoretical considerations and analyse films as both an imprint of reality and a technique of visual communication

·         be able to comprehend cinematic expressions and the secondary sources of film studies

Similar to the other modules the Introduction to Film Studies courseware is also organised into ten units comprising four major sections, each revolving around one aspect of cinema studies. After a general introduction to the basic issues and terms, the three succeeding sections consist of three units each.

1. táblázat

Introduction to film studies courseware



I. Introduction

1.     Basic Terms and Issues

Topics: medium specificity; the place of the cinematic medium in contemporary culture; film as a business venture; economic and social aspects of film production, the prehistory of cinema

II. Practices of the Image

2.     From Photography through Sound to Digital Effects

Topics: optical equipment, kinds of shots and angles; lighting; colour; the history of the sound; sound effects; music and speech, special effects

3.     Mise-en-scene

Topics: the visual composition and design of the frame; cinematic space and movement

4.     Movement and Editing

Topics: kinetics; camera movement; continuity; modes and styles of cutting

III. Practices of the Narration

5.     Story and genres

Topics: narratology; classical, realistic, and formalistic film narration; the spectator; genre and myth

6.     Dramaturgy and Acting

Topics: time, space, and language; directing; settings; costume and make-up; stage and screen acting; acting styles; the star system; casting

7.     Literature and Adaptation

Topics: the screenwriter; the screenplay; the image and its poetic variants; point of view; literary adaptations

IV. Theoretical discourses

8.     Overview of Film Theory I

Topics: the Soviet montage; realism; formalism; structuralism and semiology post-structuralism; feminism

9.     Overview of Film Theory II

Topics: 3 Third Cinema,; multiculturalism postcolonialism, middle-level research, cognitivism, film and philosophy

10.  Writing about Film: Research and the Style


The general principles were aggreed upon and laid down by the instructors involved in the training. The unified guidelines not only included references to formal attributes of the courseware but a general policy towards the didactic strategies. Having applied these the tutors submitted a hard copy of the courseware to the supervisor of the training, which was returned with suggestions to the writer for alterations to be made. These suggestions usually discussed methodological considerations, rather than the content of a specific study material.

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