Monday, May 4, 2009

Audio-Visual Equipment

A Teacher's basic audio-visual device is the blackboard. The blackboard's visual advantage is that its large size enables the teacher to write words and draw illustrations on a large scale that the entire class can see easily. The blackboard's audio advantage is that the teacher can use his hand's knuckles or a long, wooden pointer to hit the most important markings on the blackboard so that the loud impacts focus entire class's attention on particular concepts. However, the blackboard has several weaknesses:

While writing on or pointing at or knocking on the blackboard, the teacher is looking at the blackboard and not at the class.

The teacher spends class time writing and drawing on the blackboard.

The teacher's writing is hurried, sketchy and messy. Drawings are primitive and notional.

The blackboard does not show photographs.

Most of the markings are erased soon from the blackboard.

Chalk is messy.

Those of us who attended St John Elementary School at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s witnessed the introduction of new instructional technologies into our classrooms. We watched our teachers struggle to use slide projectors, film projectors, tape recorders and televisions in an educationally efficient and effective manner.

We watched Educational Technology -- we'll call this baby Eddie Tecky -- trying to learn how to walk. Since we ourselves were still children, we watched with passive amusement as if Eddie were our own stupid, clumsy baby brother. We watched Eddie stand up slowly and then step forward tentatively -- and then fall face-down onto the floor.

When I began to attend St John Elementary School in third grade, in 1960, classroom slide projectors were at about the stage of technological development shown in the following image:

Slide Projector. Image taken from

The teacher would stand behind the projector and feed one slide into a metal frame, push the frame so that the slide was inside the projector. The slide that had been in the projector was pushed out the other side. While the class looked at the projection of one slide, the teacher removed the previous slide from the frame and put the next slide into the frame. Basically, the teacher had to insert and remove each slide individually as the teacher conducted the slide show.

With this kind of slide projector, the teacher easily could make mistakes -- insert a slide upside down or backwards or insert a series of slides in the wrong order. Any such mistake disrupted the presentation. (Slide projectors with reliable carousels that held and fed a prepared series of slides conveniently into the projector became available on the market in about 1964.)

I have only a few, fleeting memories of teachers using a slide projector in classroom instruction. I remember seeing a couple slide shows of Lutheran morality lessons. These were short stories of photographs of posed puppets, perhaps Davey and Goliath or something similar.

Davey and Goliath. Image taken from
Davey and Goliath. Image taken from

I remember seeing also some slide shows illustrating some arithmetic lessons and showing foreign countries. For us kids in those years, these slide shows were colorful and novel. I marveled at the colors. We had only black-and-white televisions in those days. So, a large, brightly-colored photograph or illustration projected largely onto a big screen was impressive.

I think, though, that the teachers soon lost interest in showing such slide presentations. Operating the projector was troublesome. The lights had to be turned off, which was a condition conducive to mischief. And the slides cost the school money, which the teachers had to justify.

Teachers showed films more often than slide shows. There was a special room in the basement of St John where our teachers took us to watch films. By the time the teacher took us all down to the room, seated us all, threaded the film into the projector, showed the 15-minute film, and then led us all back to the classroom, an entire hour was spent. When teachers showed the films, there were frequent problems with the film misfeeding or breaking.

Film Projector. Image taken from

Each class had one or two boys who knew how to thread the film into the projector. Whenever the film misfed and jammed, a know-how boy opened the side of the projector and rethreaded the film into the mechanism.

There were two films that I saw at St John and still remember. One film showed track-and-field techniques -- in particular how to broad-jump, high-jump and hurdle-jump. I remember it because these actions were shown in slow-motion, and the flexing of the athletes' leg muscles looked grotesque. The other film was about the geography, people and animals of Australia. I remember it because the Australians' accents were so thick and the film's sound quality was so bad that nobody in our class could understand anything. It was like listening to Martians jabbering.

St John also had a tape recorder or two. I remember that we used them occasionally, but I can't remember what we used them for. Perhaps some of the slide-show presentations were packaged with tape recordings that the teacher played while showing the slides.

Tape Recorder. Image taken from

The only practical use of the tape recorders that I remember is that my Dad borrowed one sometimes so that our family could record an "audio letter" to my grandparents (my Mom's parents), who lived in Nigeria. Everyone in our family would talk into the tape recorder until we filled a tape, and then we would send the tape to our grandparents. A couple months later we would receive a tape recording from them and would listen to it. (We tried this with our cousins' families too, but we kept it up only with those grandparents.)

In a recent post, I wrote about summer workshops that Concordia College professors conducted in order to teach their college students how to teach elementary-school students. I have a strong memory of one such workshop, about art and music, that was conducted by Reinhold Marxhausen and a music professor (I don't remember which music professor). I think I attended this summer workshop when I was about ten years old, so in about 1961 or 1962.

When I attended this workshop, I did not recognize its entire scope and purpose. Now, however, I suppose that the workshop was a practicum for college students attending summer classes to earn academic credit in art and music education for elementary-school pupils. I remember the workshop as lasting about two hours every weekday for two weeks, but the college students' summer class probably lasted four or so weeks.

I suppose that the professors had a major problem assembling enough guinea pigs children for these workshops, and so they asked their fellow faculty members to persuade their children to particpate. I don't think I especially wanted to participate, because I was having a lot of fun already without wasting my precious summer time on some stupid workshop. Of course, a lot of other faculty kids were manipulated likewise into attending, so I cheered up when I saw so many other kids there too. (I think any kid in Seward could have participated in any of these summer workshops.)

The workshop was conducted in the art classrooms in the basement of Weller Hall. There probably were about 30 elementary-school kids of various ages, about a half-dozen college students, and the two professors.

On the first day, the professors showed us a musical, abstract film and told us that we kids too would make a film of the same type. The film was around two minutes long and showed a lot of rapidly changing colors and shapes. The film was accompanied by a tape recording of non-melodic, jazzy, mostly percussion music. The film was amusing, because its visual and audio components were obviously random but seemed to match well.

The professors then revealed to us how the film was made. A blank film strip had been colored manually with magic-marker pens. For example, a colored line drawn lengthwise through the middle of a section of the film would be see as a vertical line on the screen. If the line were drawn in a wavy manner, then the vertical line on the screen would shift right and left. These lengthwise colored lines were the main method of drawing onto the film.

Then the professors revealed to us how the music was made. They had crafted several odd instruments, mostly out of junky objects. Most of the instruments were of a percussion kind -- you hit them to make various drum-like and bell-like sounds. There were a few metal pipes that served as simple wind instruments. There were a few string instruments. The teachers then used these invented, hand-made instruments to make some jazzy music that they tape-recorded and then played back to accompany the film.

Then the professors explained to us that we kids would make our own film and music. Each student was given a length of blank film that would comprise about ten seconds of the complete film. After all the film lengths had been illustrated, they would be spliced together into one film. Since there were about 30 students, the entire film would last about 300 seconds, which was about five minutes.

The students also had to invent their own hand-made musical instruments and record their own ten seconds of music into a tape recorder. The film and music sections would follow the same order so that, in theory, each student's film section would match his tape recording.

Also, the kids were encouraged to decorate their musical instruments. They could paint them or wrap them with paper or paper mache or whatever else they thought of doing. There were lots of art supplies available for us to use.

The kids could work individually or could organize themselves into small groups to illustrate their film lengths. For example, if two kids wanted to work together, then they could splice their two film lengths together right away and record 20 seconds of music together. Most of the kids did organize themselves into groups.

I preferred to work individually, because I immediately had a bright idea and did not want to share the artistic direction and credit with anyone else. I spent most of my two weeks drawing tiny, inticate shapes onto each frame of my strip of film with magic-marker pens. Then in the last two days I made a string instrument with a cigar box and some rubber bands and tried to compose and play a bluesy melody.

My part of this project was a total fiasco. When the entire, spliced-together film was played with the continuous tape recording, neither my part of the film nor my part of the recording were recognizable. Other kids who had drawn fewer and simpler lines on the film and who had simply pounded objects did recognize their parts of the product. Also, they had spent most of their time decorating their instruments, so they had something interesting to take home.

Although I wasted all my time foolishly on this project, I did learn from my mistake. I learned that I should have spent more time studying my tools and media and then doing a project that worked within the limitations and emphasized the unique capabilities of those tools and media. My mistake was that I started with a fixation on an idealized final product that was not achievable with my tools and media.

Looking back, I think that Professor Marxhausen and the music professor were undermining the college students' belief in the instruction they were receiving in their pedagogical classes about the practical use of audio-visual equipment. The workshop was kind of a two-week mockery of such instructional equipment and prepared instructional materials. Think about it:

The professors used film that was completely blank.

The professors cut the film into pieces and distributed the pieces to the kids.

The professors told the kids to draw on the film with magic markers.

The professors told the kids to make music with pieces of junk, mostly by hitting the junk pieces together loudly.

The professors told the kids that visually decorating their musical instruments was just as important -- maybe even more important -- than using them to play music.

The essential idea was that the drawing on the film and the music seemed to match, even though both the drawing and the music were random.

The workshop was an exercise in Marshal McLuhan's idea that "the medium is the message." This exercise was a lesson for those college students and for us kids, if we had enough sense to recognize and ponder that message. Study and experiment with your tools and medium before you fixate on an application or result.

After the slide projector and film projector, the next development was the overhead projector.

Overhead Projector. Image taken from

Here is a relevant excerpt from the Wikipedia article about overhead projectors:

It [the overhead projector] began to be widely used in schools and businesses in the late 1950s and early 1960s. .... In 1957 the United States' first Federal Aid to Education program stimulated overhead sales which remained high up to the late 1990s and into the 21st Century.

The overhead projector facilitates an easy low-cost interactive environment for educators. Teaching materials can be pre-printed on plastic sheets, upon which the educator can directly write using a non-permanent, washable color marking pen. This saves time, since the transparency can be pre-printed and used repetitively, rather than having materials written manually before each class.

The overhead is typically placed at a comfortable writing height for the educator and allows the educator to face the class, facilitating better communication between the students and teacher. The enlarging features of the projector allow the educator to write in a comfortable small script in a natural writing position rather than writing in an overly large script on a blackboard and having to constantly hold his arm out in midair to write on the blackboard.

When the transparency sheet is full of written or drawn material, it can simply be replaced with a new, fresh sheet with more pre-printed material, again saving class time vs a blackboard that would need to be erased and teaching materials rewritten by the educator. Following the class period, the transparencies are easily restored to their original unused state by washing off with soap and water.

During the mid-1960s my Dad wrote a justification for a government grant to establish a facility in Seward where teachers could experiment and work with audio-visual equipment and materials. My Dad's proposal was approved, the government granted the money, and the facility was established in downtown Seward, about a half block from the town's central square. There were a couple occasions when I was accompanying my Dad on an errand and we dropped by to visit that facility for a while. There always were quite a few teachers in the facility during my visits. I didn't recognize most of the teachers, so they probably came from the public schools of Seward and of surrounding towns.

The inside of the facility looked kind of like a modern Kinkos shop. There were several large tables with large surfaces and various tools for cutting, pasting and combining sheets of paper or plastic. I think the most important equipment devices were laminating machines. The main idea was to arrange cut-out letters, numbers and shapes onto plastic sheets and then to apply heat and pressure to attach those items permanently to the plastic sheets, which then would be shown with overhead projectors. The facility essentially enabled teachers to make their own big slides for instruction with overhead projectors.

The teachers would greet my Dad and say that the facility was great. I suppose, though, that the facility was used mostly by only a small portion of teachers who were wanted to make a lot of slides and were willing to spend the time and energy to do so. I did not notice that any of my own teachers at St John made and used such slides -- or used an overhead projector at all. In any case, the facility closed after a couple of years, because the government grant was not extended.

Robert Sylwester added:

I was one of three Concordia faculty members involved in that project. The other two were Darrel Meinke and Jack Middendorf. Jack (the Concordia AV prof) was the real brains behind the project. Darrel was the Concordia librarian and so was integrally involved in the media project. My major task was to actually write the grant and the final report -- so don't give me any more credit than I deserve. Jack did all the wheeling/dealing with the local school administrators and government. I think it was an NDEA [National Defense Education Act] grant, but my memory is hazy.

It wasn't a big deal in my life or work. I think I got involved because I was Director of the Campus Lab School (St Johns) -- director, not principal (Bob Lemke). As I recall, several of the St Johns teachers used the resources of the program, but again, it's all kind of hazy after 40+ years.

Jack Middendorf was a constant wheeler dealer and actually brought in a lot of federal money to Concordia, something no on else had done before he arrived n the scene. Jack always got others to go along with him on his enterprises. I was a friend of his who could write good text, so he got me to write the grant proposals. It always paid well if we got the grant, so I did it. Jack is still a friend -- we email back and forth.

The project was done principally in conjunction with the local public school systems. As I recall, it also involved a research project that gathered information on AV knowledge/usage/etc by regional teachers. The project hired Will Robinson, a cousin of mine who Jack knew, to serve as director.

At Concordia High School, history teacher Ron Stadsklev used an overhead projector constantly. He did not normally use individual, prepared slides, however. Rather, he attached a huge roll of slide plastic to the overhead projector's body and then fed the plastic across the projector surface continually and wrote notes continually onto the plastic as he talked. He saved the plastic he had written onto, and then would show his notes again when he reviewed his lectures before a test or to show the students after a test how he had taught a certain point. I never saw any other teacher use an overhead project with this method, but I think this method was very effective.

Mr. Stadsklev also used a slide projector more than any other of my teachers. He did not use it to show prepared instructional presentations, however. Rather, he used it to show photographs that he himself had taken. Before he came to Seward to teach, he had spent a year traveling and camping in Europe (and South America?) with his family in a van. During these travels he had taken a lot of photographs (he also took a lot of photographs while participating in auto-rally competitions), and he sometimes showed them in his history classes so that we could see places in Europe that he was lecturing about.)

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