Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Online Opportunity: Documentaries and the Power of the Image

The dramatic increase in broadband Internet access enables new forms of multimedia and video and offers new tools for instruction and communication.

October 19, 2006

Credit: Edutopia

Documentary films and videos are unsung heroes in the search to improve teaching in our nation's classrooms. A compelling film scene is worth much more than a thousand words. We are beginning to see how the Internet will enable educators and students to download and view the best educational television series, films, and videos on demand, legally and cost-effectively -- a trend to watch.

This week, I saw a marvelous example of a compelling documentary on PBS from the American Experience series Remember the Alamo. In one hour, Remember the Alamo does a masterful job of telling the story of the struggle by the Tejanos (Mexican Texans) for independence in the decades before the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, long before Davy Crockett came on the scene.

The program held a number of revelations for me, beginning with Stephen Austin's arrival in Texas from Missouri in 1821, intent on using its cheap land to grow cotton. With cotton came slavery. Tejano leader José Antonio Navarro conspired with Austin and passed a bill through the legislature to avoid Mexico's antislavery policies.

The resulting explosion of Anglo farmers from the United States led the Mexican government to close its borders to immigration. The program filled in my limited knowledge of a critical period in our nation's history, posing obvious ironies to today's immigration debates.

Remember the Alamo should be required viewing in history, civics, politics, economics, and geography classes, from the middle grades on up. Its producers, together with PBS, have published an online teacher's guide.

Serendipitously, I traveled this week to Dallas with a newfound sense of the state's history to speak at two conferences organized by the Schlechty Center for Leadership in Educational Reform, in Louisville. At the second conference, I addressed close to 300 educators who had formed school and school district teams to design new schools and school systems to meet the needs of students in this century. I said that the dramatic increases in broadband access to the Internet would be one new tool they could use to advance their work, enabling new forms of multimedia and video content for instruction as well as new tools for educators to communicate as a profession.

I showed them a documentary from one of our DVD collections on the inspiring transformation of the schools in Union City, New Jersey, which evolved from a low-performing district in danger of state takeover to one of the state's best. The film includes a memorable scene in which parent Ana Calles tells of her family's celebration when her son, Juan, brought home a laptop computer during his middle school years. Her son then spoke about how that computer turned his educational life around, leading him to college at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a job at IBM. In those few minutes, that documentary dramatizes and personalizes the advantages of laptop computer programs in ways that no dusty report could.

I asked the audience of 300, "How many of you have a high-speed connection to the Internet?" Nearly all of their hands went up, corroborating national data on the swift gains in broadband access in just five years. I recalled a meeting with George Lucas in 2000 at which he encouraged the Foundation to digitize and put our documentaries on this site, at a time when many educators had only dial-up access and GLEF was providing the films on VHS tapes and CD-ROMs. His prediction that users would be able to view video over the Web has come true, much more quickly than most forecasts.

Since then, thanks to YouTube, Google Video, and other video-sharing Web sites, Internet TV has become a new media habit. I played the Union City documentary from a DVD for that audience, but the educators at that conference can now, on our site, easily review the documentary and go deeper into a multimedia case study about the district and share those resources with others.

Which documentaries have been valuable in your teaching and helped students with a visual understanding of a topic? Have you used GLEF's documentaries with colleagues for professional development and creating a shared vision of new kinds of schools? Let me know your thoughts about documentaries and the power of their images.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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