September 24, 2021

Grounded in a social, fluid, and multiple nature of literacy, Chang Liu’s article critically reflects on a collaborative filmmaking experience and discusses the benefits of incorporating elements of media education into formal schooling, arguing for a curricular and pedagogical change, from one preoccupied with competition, testing, and outcomes to one that honours collaboration, reflection, and multimodality.

The ongoing digital revolution has witnessed a rising penetration of multimedia content in various facets of our lives, including education, entertainment, and communication. This transformation has spurred many (e.g., Buckingham, 2007; Cannon, 2018) to reconsider the notion of literacy, traditionally defined as “an individual, internal capability” to “make meaning from and through written text” (Luke & Woods, 2009, p.1). Contemporary literacy, however, is fluid in nature and viewed as one’s disposition to engage with diverse social and digital media contexts (Cannon, 2018) to fully participate in and contribute to society (Street, 2003). For educators, delivering media education has the potential to cater to the fundamental shift in young people’s lived experience (Cannon et al., 2018) and embrace a more  democratic mode of learning (Buckingham, 1992). This is in marked contrast to banking education, which entails a dominant one-way depositing of knowledge into learners’ minds (Freire, 2018) and a fixed standards-based evaluation of literacy (Buckingham, 2007). Regrettably, developing new media literacies is not sufficiently integrated in formal education and instead is largely confined to students’ out-of-school lives (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). This module enabled me to experience first-hand the promise of media education, which celebrates a participatory culture:

a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices … members also believe their contributions matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another. (Jenkins, 2009, p.3)

In this essay, I will critically reflect upon my collaborative filmmaking experience as part of this module and discuss the benefits of incorporating elements of media education into formal schooling. Since “ the creative process is valuable on its own” (ibid., p. 6), I will focus more on my filmmaking journey than the finished product. By drawing on key concepts and theories of media education and creativity studies throughout, I argue for a curricular and pedagogical change, from one preoccupied with competition, testing, and outcomes to one that honours collaboration, reflection, and multimodality.


 The first stage of our film project was to brainstorm a list of possible narrative ideas with “message” as the prompt. Our group started with a solitary ideation process as we believed that “everyone has a powerful story to tell” (Lambert, & Hessler, 2018, n.p.). Despite sharing similar socio-cultural backgrounds, we proposed vastly distinct accounts — perceiving “message” as a last resort to connecting faraway lovers, a stimulus leading to an everyday social dilemma, and a token symbolising Marxism in contemporary China, among others. Contrary to romantic notions of creativity as a form of divine power embodied by the few (Buckingham, 2003), this inception process reflected the ubiquity of creativity (Glăveanu,2010) as a feature displayed by all of us.

Subsequent collective discussions enabled us to share and challenge thoughts critically and respectfully, which was in stark contrast to the culture of silence due to classroom oppression in banking education (Freire, 2018). This meaning production and exchange activity was imbued with culturally mediated experiences (Hall, 1997), which eventually led to the group decision to work on a narrative that was closely related to our shared humanity. Initially constructed as a Public Service Announcement (PSA), our chosen tale intended to highlight the importance of listening to one’s inner thoughts against a cacophony of external voices in an information explosion age.


 As we were based in completely different regions, we agreed that our film should constitute several segmented scenes so that we could all participate in the shooting. In order to create  the storyline, we combined our imagination and past sociocultural encounters, which  mirrored Vygotsky’s (1967) basis of creativity. For example, we expressed our shared nostalgic feelings towards childhood by designing a scene of a carefree toddler playing with her mother on the lawn. Through these constructions, we were able to “turn to our natural selves and relive our experiences” (Nguyen, 2011, p.25).

The discussion then moved on to the technical elements underpinning the shot rationales, where we “develop[ed] ideas with others through investigating and experimenting with filmmaking techniques” (BFI, 2015 p.9). With a shared sense of purpose, we explored how applying the rule of thirds could make an object obvious in the frame and how using a low angle followed by a high angle shot could underscore the protagonist’s sense of sorrow  facing the luxurious building. During this process, we employed what Jenkins (2009, p.9) refers to as “collaborative problem-solving”, a preferred way of “complet[ing] tasks and develop[ing] new knowledge” in a participatory culture.

Once the details of all shots were formulated, we appointed one groupmate to craft the storyboard so as to maintain a consistent artistic style. Far from an individualised activity, this process involved constant clarifications, rationalisations, and redrafting from the entire group. As a film is perceived as a “dialogue between the filmmaker and audience” (BFI, 2015, p.9), how intended meanings could be effectively communicated to prospective audience was deliberated. This again illustrates the social influence on our film production, where meaning-making was situated in the “intersubjective space” (Glăveanu, 2010, p. 87) between the creator and the imaginary spectator. The spontaneous “two-way media flow” (Hoechsmann & Poyntz, p.5) enabled us to critique and refine our collective contributions at an early stage of enactment.

Aside from “harness[ing] collective intelligence” (Jenkins, 2009, p.72) within the group, we also developed our distributed cognition by “tapping … remote experts whose knowledge [might] be useful” (ibid., p. 67). For us, it was our tutors who offered us valuable insights and suggestions on filmmaking. After hearing our plan during one workshop, the tutor encouraged us to avoid using special effects and instead convey meaning through different camera techniques. While this suggestion was endorsed unanimously by the group, it brought about the most challenging part of our journey. As “people who cooperate to produce a work of art usually do not decide things afresh” (Becker, 1974, p. 771), we referred to memories of specific films and re-engaged in rounds of intellectual debate in an attempt to modify our plan. Eventually, we drew inspiration from John Lewis’ Give A Little Love and replaced the “bumping out” written inserts with a motif – an envelope. It resembles the heart emblem connecting a long chain of giving in Lewis’ clip. Surprisingly, rather than limiting creativity, “constraints … occasion[ed] enhanced creative outputs” (Cannon et al., 2014, p.10) and this modification turned out to be exceptionally successful when our final French New Wave film was on screen.

Shooting and Editing

Owing to the geographical separation of the entire group, we decided to shoot the scenes with the help of nearby friends and families. As creativity is distributed among groups working in collaboration (Glăveanu, 2010), discussions were conducted in real time as a group. During filming, we realised that the storyboard “did not represent a reductive and rigid model” (Potter, 2012, p.106), but performed as a scaffolding that triggered “improvisatory critical responses” (Cannon et al., 2018, p.188). For instance, the POV shot of cycling was the toughest one to film as I failed to keep the camera steady on a moving bike. Hence, our group were compelled to consider alternatives to produce a similar effect. Aside from details of specific shots like this, we did not experience changes of the main plotline as claimed in Cannon’s (2018) research, partially due to the small scale of our project.

As a novice film creator, I received enormous help from my groupmates who were more advanced in media production. Manifestations of “informal mentorship” (Jenkins, 2009, p.6) was noticeably seen during filming, where one groupmate shared her expertise with us throughout. For instance, she sharply identified a mistake after viewing my final shot. Using film terminology, she explained that the fourth wall had been broken as the actress looked straight into the camera, resulting in direct “contact” with the audience. Notwithstanding being thousands of miles apart, we created what Gee (2004, p.8) describes as “affinity space”, an informal peer-to-peer learning site where we developed knowledge, literacies, and communication skills. Besides accruing these forms of cultural capital, affective group ties were fostered, opposite to the win-lose competitive mindset of students under neoliberal forces.

Despite profound levels of group interactions for the most part, there were occasions where immediate responses could not be expected due to schedule clashes. One of the difficulties I faced was filming an envelope falling towards the camera when the wind was not in my favour. After a strenuous process of “manipulat[ing] core resources and explor[ing] [my] immediate environments” (Jenkins, 2009, p.35), I successfully overcame the wind force by using a massive scarf and a portable fan. This was promptly followed by an “experimental, trial and error way” (Sefton-Green, 2013, p.16) of capturing the intuitively best moment of the falling envelope. Another case that stimulated my creativity was filming the establishing shot, where I experimented with different layouts of props in order to set a cheerful atmosphere. This exploratory process allowed me to tap on my prior internalisations of vlogs produced by others and subsequent externalisations of these media works in my own way (Moran et al, 2003).

Lamentably, due to the limited timeframe, we did not have the opportunity to carry out editing as a group. Since contribution is not mandatory all the time in a participatory culture (Jenkins, 2009), we agreed that the editing task would be undertaken primarily by one motivated groupmate. In line with the view that “all [members] must believe they are free to contribute and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued” (ibid., p.6), I attempted trimming my shots to the desired lengths and adjusting their brightness using the built-in photos app on iPhone to save the editor some time. Similarly, regarding the soundtrack, instead of using a range of diegetic and non-diegetic music as we planned, we inserted one overarching bcking track to deliver the overall emotional tone.

Screening and Sharing

Upon submission, all groups were invited to an online screening and sharing session to  review the films as a module group. Unlike the typical “teacher-as-examiner” model of evaluating literacy (Buckingham, 2007, p. 52), this session brought in a diverse audience, including tutors, fellow students, and guest lecturers, who provided heartfelt comments on  our creative products. Our film Message on Interface was praised generously for its  enigmatic and intriguing mood and the skilful use of various cinematic techniques, especially the black-and-white flashback sequence. This supportive feedback brought me with “senses  of authorship of the medium and agency” (Rantala, 2009, p.395) we collaboratively achieved through “translati[ng] … abstractions into palpable modalities” (Cannon et al., 2018, p.186). Furthermore, as someone who once subscribed to the creative genius rhetoric before undertaking this project, I was highly sceptical of the distributive nature of creativity (Glăveanu, 2010) and hence group work. Just as Burn and Durran (2007) assert that creative production has the potential to transform the creator, this collaborative journey has deconstructed my purely psycho-cognitive preconception of creativity and my sense of self as an uncreative individual.

This film-viewing experience also allowed us to “[alter] the way [we] look at work created by others” (Jenkins, 2009, p. 6) as various interpretations of the prompts were showcased. Some narratives were equally sophisticated as ours, whereas others were situated in a quotidian setting. Nonetheless, what many shared was a common civic ambition of raising awareness of problems confronting our society, such as fake news and cyberbullying. My peers’ creative talents broadened my imagination of the potential of amateur multimedia producers, who were endowed with “the same tools that professional artists, craftspeople and engineers use” (Burn, 2016, p.4) in the digitalised era. This session also provoked me to consider further improvements to our production process and the final film. For example, more concurrent group discussions during the post-production phase would certainly enhance problem-solving and decision-making. Moreover, applying advanced skills we learnt in this module, such as Foley and match cuts, would further enrich our collaborative experience and take our film to a higher level.

Discussion and Conclusion

 Our film production journey testifies to the myriad virtues of media education “in terms of personal development, identity, expression and [its] social consequences — participation, social capital, civic culture” (Jenkins, 2009, p.5). However, a radical shift from a print-centric test-oriented system to one prioritising new literacies and participatory cultures is not entirely realistic. That said, the insights I gleaned from this module, particularly the film creation experience, can be translated into several recommendations for future schools. First, collaborative meaning-making activities can be encouraged across all subjects to empower students to experience creative agency, shared intelligence, strengthened emotive bonds, and bolstered self-perception. Second, reflective writing that focuses on situated learning experience and engages both theory and practice can be used by schools to replace a didactic linear mode of education. Third, multimodality should be adopted to enhance the educational experience of students with diverse learning styles, such as those who tend to thrive with indexical (e.g, films) rather than symbolic signs (e.g., language).  As  new  literacy  is  a  lived and dynamic mechanism (UNESCO, 2016), schools have a role to play in interrupting the established norms of education and endorsing elements of media education in a sustained manner.



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About Chang Liu

Chang Liu is a postgraduate student reading MPhil Research in Second Language Education at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She has obtained a First-Class Honours degree in BA Education Studies from the Institute of Education, University College London. Her current research interests lie in sociolinguistics and language education, particularly a social approach to explore international students’ language learning experiences in multilingual contexts.

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