Media literacy is one of the founding tenets of public access cable television. George Stoney, the father of public access television, understood that in order for the access project to be fully realized education would have to play a central role. Today learning with digital media happens at many public, educational, and governmental (PEG) access television stations, also known as community media centers. Here, the community is the classroom. Students learn about the mission of public access television as a free speech forum where a diversity of ideas can enhance civic life.
Community media forge an alternative space between the market and the state, and in that space the First Amendment is vigorously promoted. Apart from the public library, there may be no other public space where students can readily access fringe and radical voices alongside conservative and mainstream views. The term “community media” stands for free speech; ready access, participation, and education are vital components of that ideal. Critical thinking should be enmeshed into the theory, practice, and teaching of community media with digital video tools.
Participatory Video before YouTube
In the late 1960s, George Stoney joined the National Film Board of Canada’s Challenge for Change program. There he learned how to use video as a tool to build coalitions and in doing so he led citizens to use communications media to improve the quality of their lives (Boyle). Stoney approached the use of community media as a social process that brings people together to develop community and strengthen local democracy—projects that are often messy and ambiguous. In other words, his view of the pedagogy of community media is focused on process rather than on product.
Stoney brought what he learned back to New York University, where he launched the Alternate Media Center. The AMC became the training ground for public access producers using local cable television systems. Through Stoney’s visionary work, the AMC spawned the public access movement of the 1970s.
Today students continue to gain skills in public access centers across the United States by using computers and broadband technology. Many community media centers have incorporated new media tools to complement, but not replace, their cable access television channels. That is because cable access continues to be the weight-bearing wall that supports community media organizations as they experiment with new and innovative information and communication tools. Teaching community media with digital video tools presents additional opportunities and challenges as the audience for community-produced programs becomes both local and global.
The pedagogy of digital community media connects local communication processes to national media systems. Students gain an understanding of the mechanics of cable and Internet networks and become conscious of how these procedures impact audiences. This awareness of communication infrastructure helps students learn how politics, economics, and the law influence media access and participation in local communities.
Although tools and distribution networks change, the pedagogical aim of community media remains the same. George Stoney’s vision of community media recognizes that people will always have a need for humanistic communication. To that end, students will continue to need ongoing training with the latest technology and relevant infrastructure to address local information needs effectively. Ultimately, whether consciously or not, a student of community media engages not only in the process of digital media literacy but also in the development of community itself.
The Rise of the Mini-Cam
There are two main developments that help explain the digital video technology available to today’s community media students. These developments involve camera size and recording format. In the 1970s, with the emergence of cable television, the Sony Portapak became a popular tool at public access centers. The size of the camera and the recording format of cassette tape changed significantly over time. Camcorders got smaller, and a variety of digital formats replaced analog tape. Video8, VHS, Betamax, Hi-8, Mini-DV, and DVD are just a few of the many formats that amateur video producers have encountered over the years. More recently, flash memory cards have become popular for recording and storage.
In 2006, Pure Digital Technologies Inc. released the Pure Digital Point & Shoot Video Camcorder, a low-cost, easy to use, video camera for the average enthusiast. For the first time, camcorders could capture moving images inside the camera without using tape—a significant moment in the evolution of digital video technology. Two years later, Pure Digital released the Flip Mino. Our community media center, Cambridge Community Television (CCTV), purchased a dozen of them for our training program. The Mino was sleeker than its predecessor and could hold sixty minutes of 640 x 480 pixel Standard Definition video. We soon learned that the camera quality was good enough to cablecast on CCTV’s public access channels.
Of course, the inexpensive digital camcorder had its shortcomings, as well. In the beginning, CCTV producers taught the staff some important lessons about Flip Mino best practices, especially when it came to image stabilization, audio recording, and digital zoom. The image stabilization feature was not necessarily corrective; in fact it yielded images that were unstable and unnatural. It is best to remain as steady as possible when using the Flip Mino handheld, and our producers’ videos improved significantly when they used tripods. As a result, viewers were able to spend less time watching shaky images and more time focused on content.
The second lesson of the Flip camera involved audio recording technique. CCTV staff members learned that it is critical for producers to be as close as possible to the source when recording audio. The camera’s automatic audio compression and leveling features cause the noise floor to rise when the direct source, such as a person speaking, moves farther away. The camera does not have an input for an external microphone, so it is important for camera operators to be close to the source.
Producers must also pay attention to the distance between the lens and the subject. The camera has a digital zoom rather than an optical zoom. As a result, the image can become blurry when the zoom is activated. By learning about these three shortcomings of the Flip Mino camera, we were able to discover how to use the technology best, both for teaching and for learning.
The Flip Mino provided students and instructors with a handy way to learn and teach documentary and web media skills. The camera also helped to increase the amount of video produced for CCTV’s cable channels and website. NeighborMedia citizen journalists at CCTV receive a Flip Mino camera when they join the program. They are encouraged to keep the cameras with them when they are out in the community. This way, when news breaks they are ready to cover it. Most importantly, citizen journalists are encouraged to use their cameras to engage with residents in the community through media. The Flip Mino is a perfect tool for learning with digital media in a community setting.
Learning with Digital Community Media
During the U.S. presidential election season in 2008, I taught a three-session course at Cambridge Community Television that focused on using Flip Mino cameras for community media production. The course combined documentary-style short-film production with “person on the street” newsgathering techniques. Students used digital video to take the pulse of the community as the election drew near. This approach is certainly not new—and was not intended to be so—but it had innovative aspects:
- Students learned about their physical surroundings and about the people in their community through their use of digital media.
- Students gained a better understanding of digital mapping technology and online video distribution tools. They used these skills to create a rich, interactive experience for their local and global audiences.
- Students learned with digital media in new ways by producing material for both cable access television and web-based platforms.
I assigned my students to interview Cambridge residents about their hopes for the next administration. In the process, the students gained a mastery of the Flip Mino camera and learned how to use multiple platforms to distribute their work. The videos were shown on CCTV’s cable access television channels and were uploaded to CCTV’s digital community network, where residents left comments on each other’s blogs to inspire civil discussion online. In addition, students learned how to “geotag” their videos using CCTV’s Media Map, a feature that gave audiences new ways to experience actual places through virtual platforms.
In my video classes at CCTV, I often asked my students the following questions at the beginning of each course: What is your message? Who is your audience? How will your message reach that audience? My students are then asked to examine the impact of digitally mediated environments on traditional communication processes, by moving on to deeper questions, such as: What is your digital identity? Will it have an impact on your use of digital media? Is your digital performance space public or private? What impact will this space have on your project’s design? How will the Web’s permanence impact the design, implementation, and evaluation of the digital media you use? In other words, how does the virtual sphere, in addition to the cable medium, influence the outcome of a community media project in the digital age?
These questions required the students to think critically about using digital media production and distribution techniques to promote community voices. In the same way, George Stoney might have asked his students at AMC to consider the limitations and possibilities of the Sony Portapak video camera, cable access television, and the media system in which these tools existed back in the 1970s.
The assignment at CCTV was a great success. Students learned about the Flip Mino pros and cons, mentioned above, as they recorded conversations with a wide spectrum of Cambridge residents. CCTV is located in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, and its large Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Spanish, and Arabic speaking populations use CCTV’s cable channels to produce and receive information in their native languages. The students used the assignment to feature the city’s diversity while enhancing civic dialogue.
During the three-session course, my students engaged the community by learning with digital media tools, techniques, and platforms. They discovered videoblogging by viewing examples of short-form, web-based documentaries. Before taking the course, they had thought videoblogging was nothing more than homemade videos about cats posted on YouTube. Through assignments that focused on their own community, they discovered how to use digital media to expand their experience, their skills, and their understanding of the world.
The community is the classroom in the pedagogy of community media. Here, local residents come to the Community Media Center to learn with digital media. Students move beyond physical boundaries into online spaces. This process requires a particular awareness, responsibility, and sensitivity to the needs of residents when media production tools are brought into the community.
Instructors who teach at community media centers often include a diverse mix of people from faculty at local colleges and universities to amateur online video producers. The Internet has lowered barriers to entry for experts from all walks of life. Learning with digital media in community settings can introduce students to new ways of thinking about information that goes beyond the consumption of commercial media products. As a result, residents gain access to local knowledge as information is transferred from places-to-bits and bits-to-places to build stronger community through media.
Boyle, Deirdre. “O Lucky Man! George Stoney’s Lasting Legacy.” Wide Angle. 21.2 (1999): 11-8.
Mossberg, Walter S. and Katherine Boehret. “The Video Camera Revised.” Wall Street Journal. 3 May 2006. Web. 13 February 2011. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB114661430004242045.html>.
Higgins, John W. “Community Television and the Vision of Media Literacy, Social Action, and Empowerment.” The Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 22 September 1999. Web. 13 February 2011. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m6836/is_4_43/ai_n25026597/?tag=content;col1>.
 John W. Higgins highlighted the use of video as a process of social change in his article “Community Television and the Vision of Media Literacy, Social Action, and Empowerment.”
 At the 2010 Alliance for Community Media Conference, Laurie Cirivello, Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, discussed the importance of cable access television to the funding structure of community media organizations and their view of computers and broadband technology as extensions of public, educational, and governmental access television.