The Power Of Student-Made Videos - Easy Apps For Projects & Primary Sources

Source: ASIDE 2016

The use of videos in learning is no longer exceptional. Whether via classroom viewing, flipped instruction, or self-directed YouTube searches, kids expect a multimedia accompaniment to their otherwise humdrum lectures and daily note-taking.

Having students create their own videos upgrades the internalization of ideas to a much more nuanced level. Inviting learners to produce their own content is the difference between input and output, content and skills, decoding and encoding, passivity and activity. 

Luckily, an array of user-friendly (and largely free) websites and apps has made it easy to incorporate video projects into any humanities or scientific classroom. For example, we’ve written before about how much we like Adobe Voice and Renderforest in giving students agency over their own learning.


Source: Magisto
One of our favorite (and effortless) apps for creating videos is Magisto. Intended as an automatic editor, Magisto’s algorithm self-selects the best parts of your video clips and images, and it splices them together into a stunning finished product. Even using only still photos, the app does a magnificent job of melding photographs into a powerful short film. Yes, there are free and paid options, but the free version offers a nice buffet of styles and songs to allow for customization. In addition, setting up student accounts is a breeze, with no concerns for firewalls or emails.

In our history classroom, we’ve used Magisto to particularly worthwhile effect in studying primary sources. For example, in our investigation of assimilation and the Dawes Act in the American West, our eighth-graders examined the photographs of Edward S. Curtis in his documentation of Native Americans. Among historians, Curtis owns a difficult legacy. On one hand, he was the only Easterner who committed years of his life to record and preserve the vanishing tribes of the continent’s First Peoples. On the other hand, he posed his subjects in deliberately disingenuous headdresses, choreographed untimely rituals, and removed contemporary technologies from the photographs he thought should speak only to yesteryear.

 Whether “true” or not, Curtis’ choices invite valuable conversations about historiography and ethnography. In the end, all photographs involve making choices. They are, therefore, by nature artificial. Every kid who frames and retouches an Instagram snapshot knows this. All primary sources, in this mold, are less-than perfect, because they all emerge from the lens of their creator. But does that detract from their value as illuminating historical relics? Or put differently: the lesson here is for students of history to be rightfully skeptical, while still appreciating the value of evidence.

Using Magisto, our eighth-graders made videos with Curtis’ photos, using the following determinations:
  • Selection - which images would properly relate to their theme?
  • Sequence - what progression would make sense from start to finish?
  • Style - what editing suite would complement the intended mood?
  • Music - what instrumentation would add value to the theme?
  • Text - what title and summary would help teach others?
  • Tone - what overall feeling or motif would wed the images together?


The father of data visualization, Edward Tufte, likes to say that 1 + 1 = 3. He refers primarily to white space and spatial adjacency. But another corollary suggests that when combined, two visual elements create a third sense of meaning simply because of their union. The marriage of two parts establishes a separate sensibility via their juxtaposition. Nowhere is this more true than in producing videos. The images, text, editing, soundtrack, transitions, and effects all fuse together to give birth to a wholly original animal that is more than the sum of its parts.

When kids design their own films, they become the educators of their peers. They must stitch together a narrative and storyboard each moment in a process that combines logical reasoning, cause-and-effect, and content mastery. They also must employ their graphicacy skills to fashion compelling and appealing visual displays. On a most basic level, students also genuinely like making movies. It’s a low-cost, high-reward project that gets them excited to dive into primary sources and eager to engage with the material.