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Multimedia Made Simple, The Hard Way

Paul Brians

     There's a type of world history teacher who describes the ideal media presentation as throwing a single image up on the screen and then having students discuss it intensely for fifty minutes. This has always sounded intriguing to me, but is very far from the way I teach. 1
     I always tell the students in my World Civilizations class that there are two main questions we ask about the past: "What happened?" and "What lasts?" As a humanist, I am especially interested in the latter, and I want to expose my students to a wide range of cultural artifacts: architecture, art, poetry, dance, song, and instrumental music and theater. 2
     I used to carry around trays of slides, CDs and videotape cartridges, but for some years I've been moving toward delivering all the media for my lectures from my PowerBook (Apple computers make the integration of media particularly easy, but all of this can be accomplished in the Windows environment too). 3
     I began by displaying scanned slides and illustrations as JPEGs inside an HTML frameset that displays a scrolling menu of image titles on the right-hand edge of the screen. Many people prefer the ease of use and seamlessness of PowerPoint, but that program has one fatal flaw for my taste: it makes it cumbersome to jump around in a presentation, to skip ahead when the bell is about to ring, or go back five slides in answer to a student question. 4
     I like showing students over the course of a semester  a dozen different slides of women laboring in the fields or performing on musical instruments at court to combat the pervasive myth that in ancient cultures "women stayed in the home." But given the lack of cultural literacy in American high schools, it's as important to expose students to traditional images like theVenus de Milo  and the Mona Lisa as well as the revisionist ones like a couple of dozen images from Medieval illuminations showing women at work. For many students, seeing is believing, and giving abundant visual evidence of a point can help override ingrained preconceptions. 5
     Over the course of a long career I've moved from presenting music on open-reel tape, to cassettes, to CD's. But if I want to play a number of short selections in a row, loading and unloading the CDs becomes cumbersome. I'm not good at talking and making sense while handling equipment. Now I rip the tracks I want to my hard disk using iTunes, and, using the "embed" command, insert them into pages of my HTML frameset, with associated text (titles, lyrics, etc.) displayed below them. It's a good deal of work to create the presentation the first time around, but then it's simplicity itself to go from showing a still image to playing a troubadour lyric while the students follow the words displayed on the screen, all with a couple of clicks in the Web browser. I can control the volume, pause, rewind, and do everything I want with the music from the laptop's trackpad. 6
     I often like to show short video clips to illustrate points in class. Architecture particularly lends itself to this technique, since a walk-through of a building like the Parthenon gives a much more dynamic sense of its structure and volume than a set of stills. My students read a scene from Sophocles' Antigone and then watch it come to life as the same scene performed in the BBC production. They learn that Chinese opera can be more circus-like than they would have guessed by watching the spectacular scene of the acrobatic battle in the temple from Baishezhuan. They are reluctant to believe that a discretely narrated love scene from The Tale of Genji actually involves sex until the lesson is reinforced by the mildly explicit Japanese animé version of the same scene. And nothing better conveys the richness and tragedy of multicultural Moorish Spain than a sequence of songs and architectural shots from 1492: A Portrait in Music, with the Waverly Consort. 7
     But borrowing the tapes and cuing them up was a hassle until I decided to integrate them into my laptop presentations as well. I have digitized my favorite clips from videotapes through an S-video connection (getting hold of a reasonably priced VCR with S-video output was a major challenge), using the inexpensive Formac Studio unit to record them via firewire onto my laptop, then edited them in FinalCut Express (using FCE's cropping tool to trim out the annoying video "noise" at the bottom of the frame and applying the de-interlace filter to smooth the images). Exported as QuickTime movies saved at the highest quality, the results are impressive even blown up on the large screen. 8
     Very short clips can be played from within my HTML framesets using the "embed" command, but it works better to assemble a number of clips into a single presentation in iDVD and burn them to a DVD-R on my laptop. Now I have a half dozen examples of world music and dance on a single disc, and the large files don't have to reside permanently on my crowded hard drive. 9
     When I plan to show clips in a class, I launch the DVD Player application before class and hide it ("minimize" it for you Windows types) while I do the rest of my presentation, clicking it into the foreground when I'm ready to view the cued-up clip. This also works when you want to show a cued-up scene from a commercial DVD without having to make your students sit through the introductory screens. 10
     Using scenes from DVDs in their original resolution and aspect ratio presents formidable challenges, not the least of which is legal (the courts have not upheld the sort of "fair use" copying familiar from other media in the DVD realm); but if you should secure permission to extract a scene from a DVD, on a Mac a combination of DVDBackup (freeware), DVDxDV (shareware), and Final Cut Pro (expensive) will ready the extract for burning onto DVD-R. 11
     All of this probably sounds like an impossible lot of work to anyone who hasn't tried it. You've got to enjoy messing around with software to make it worthwhile. But once the presentation is done, it makes classroom lectures flow much more easily and frees you up to talk and think about content rather than wrestling with equipment. 12

Biographical Note: Paul Brians is a professor of English at Washington State University. He has been an integral part of the World Civilizations program at WSU for more than a decade.

HTML Code Samples

Sample code for playing an mp3 file from inside an HTML-based presentation:
<embed src="yourtitle.mp3" autostart="false" height="60" width="144">
(Replace "yourtitle" with the real name of your mp3 file.)

Sample code for inserting a QuickTime video clip into an HTML-based presentation:
<embed src="" width="480" height="378"  autoplay="false" >
(Replace "yourtitle" with the real name of your video clip, and change the pixel width and height to whatever it should be for your project.)

Sample Presentation Pages

Click here to view sample pages


Antigone. BBC (Films for the Humanities), 1981.

"Baishezhuan," The JVC Video Anthology of World Music and Dance: East Asia III: China 1. Tokyo: JVC, 1988. Dist. Rounder Records).

1492: A Portrait in Music. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1992.

Tale of Genji, The. Asahi National Broadcasting  & Nippon Herald Films, 1987. Dist. New York: Central Park Media, 1995.


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