Altars, mud and cake

We were extremely grateful to the Senhouse Roman Museum for their hospitality and patience as they hosted a visit from us last week.

The Museum has a great location, with fine views over the Solway Firth – it holds examples of altars, monuments and sculptures most of which come from the Roman fort and settlement at Maryport.  (A bonus in the summer months the modest entrance fee includes a tour of the excavations).

Our mission was to interview the site director Tony Wilmott, capture pictures and record students at work in the Roman Temple Project Excavation.  Our crack Digital Media Team:  Kevin, Stephen and Helen got to work identifying good filming locations and setting up equipment.


Lunch time gave a chance to meet some of the team of archaeologists, many of whom are Newcastle University students.  We noted considerable trade in cake from the Museum shop.  Clearly cake is as important as sunscreen on site!

Then, a short walk from the museum to the site, to a crafty viewpoint on top of the excavation mound to view the activity at work.  Ian  skilfully summaried the work to camera before the team were let loose with hand held cameras to film students close up.


ian wiht sky


You’ll be able to spot the footage in Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier when it starts on 22 September.  Look out for it when we consider frontier communities, ritual and religion.

We get asked the strangest things….

Bubble wrap by Free photos and art from CC-BY 2.0
Bubble wrap by Free photos and art from CC-BY 2.0

It’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride, this project.

We are working with all three faculties here at Newcastle University to produce one course each for delivery on the FutureLearn platform.

All three are now in various stages of production, and our picture research, propping and copyright skills are being tested fairly regularly. For the first time in a long time I am bringing all my experience from all of my career history into use in one delightful and slightly mad course development, production and delivery whirlwind.

All of us are bringing our varied experiences to bear in the team – we are very lucky to have serial MOOCer Nuala working with us with her accessibility experience, and Mike’s calm and measured approach to applying online and distance pedagogy to MOOC development is keeping us all grounded.

Our hybrid project management approach seems to be working, though perceived by some to be slightly unorthodox, we all think we have the right checks and balances in place.

I thought it might be fun to share some of the unusual requests that have come through our office in the last couple of weeks, without (yet) giving away what it is we are actually working on…. public course announcements come a bit later.

So far, we have been asked to:

  • find a human skeleton (easy, I used to work in the medical school)
  • find a primate skeleton
  • buy a very large roll of bubble wrap and a lot of clear parcel tape
  • employ two compliant actors
  • source a magic embroidery machine (and operator)
  • engage a local leatherworker
  • get packed lunches for 20
  • mind a large lump of reproduction silver
  • encourage academics to challenge everything they know about learning and teaching
  • carry a set of Roman tools around campus, several times
  • get permission to use a digital reproduction of Raphael’s Transfiguration from the Vatican
  • think carefully about Game of Thrones and the indyref
  • arrange a shed on a beach

the list is endless….

Futurelearn materials permission

Below is the process we are using to ensure we have the correct permissions to use materials on the  the FutureLearn platform

Checking/obtaining rights for existing materials:

1. Check the item and associated web pages to see if consent has been granted, for example as a Creative Commons licence that tells you under which circumstances it can be used.

2. If needs be, contact the individual or organisation asking for permission. We have a template from FutureLearn. You need to be confident that the organisation or individual owns the Copyright of the complete materials

3. If permission is granted, ensure that you save the correspondence for future reference. For FutureLearn courses, we also record information to an asset register.


Procuring/commissioning materials

  • Commissioned or purchased materials need to purchase worldwide rights in perpetuity to be used on the FutureLearn platform
  • Record the permissions have been granted and keep any correspondence (for FutureLearn, this will go in an asset register

Filming for Learning

Video materials are essential to distance and on-line education and can transform campus based teaching (see for example flipping the classroom). The filming process is both enjoyable and challenging. Whilst much can be done with simple technologies (web cams, screen-casting software and mobile devices) a film crew (such as Newcastle’s Digital Media Team) can produce polished, professional material.

Planning the filming is essential and will save time and improve quality in the long run. Start by understanding what the video brings to the learning. You can then plan each shoot in detail. Finally, do not underestimate the logistics in bringing everything together.


Plan the learning

  • Ensure you know what each clip is trying to achieve. What exactly does the learner need from the clip? What will the learner know/be able to do after the clip? What will prompt the user to view the clip? eg watch this video in order to answer a quiz, or participate in a discussion about a particular question.
  • What steps/activities will set up the learning and follow up on outcomes. Will there be a discussion/test or assignment?  what should the learner be thinking about whilst watching?
  • Remember that people are unlikely to watch long clips. 5 minutes is a maximum for most MOOC participants, but aim for less. Catch their attention in the first 15 seconds
  • You will need an accessible alternative eg a transcript of the text. This will also help people who don’t necessarily need it for accessibility reasons (for example so they can read it on the bus, make notes on the text etc)

Planning each shot

  • The film crew need to know exactly what you are aiming for, including what kind of shots, what style and who will be involved. A storyboard and/or detailed textual description will pay dividends
  •  Try to scout the location beforehand and use a mobile device if possible to try out some of the shots and see if they work.
  • Screen tests for performers can save time later. The film crew can help get the best performance
  • A script in outline or storyboard can help all participants understand what the shot is about.  Who will talk and what about? How long will people speak for? What objects/scenery will they will refer? This helps the film crew plan the shot, and the performer(s) deliver, even when you want them to improvise during filming
  • As a rule of thumb, allow an hour to shoot a five minute clip. This will depend on a variety of factors, but several takes may be needed and it takes time to set up equipment
  • Establishing shots help give the learner context, for example, by showing people arriving at the scene, showing a building from the outside. This prepares the viewer for what they are about to see and here eg by explaining why there is background noise so that viewers expect it and then ignore it rather than being distracted by it. Allow time for this
  • If time, plan to shoot from a range of angles to provide a more interesting sequence.  Don’t forget to shoot enough variety of cutaway shots – this can include wide (establishing) shots of the location, shots of hands as people talk, etc.
  • Allow extra time if detailed shots are required eg a close up of an artefact in a museum
  • Sequence of the shoot – plan the location shooting to reflect a logical order based not on the final product, but on the most efficient use of resources and travel / location set up
  • Allow extra time for cutaway shots eg a shot of something relevant that an interviewee is talking about. Cutaways also allow the video to be re-cut in different ways to allow for mistakes in interviews, taking bits out and so on, without having a choppy looking video as a result
  • Remember that whilst reality TV and documentaries make things appear spontaneous (almost as if they were shot in take), in fact it  can require planning, multiple takes from different angles and even scripting to produce something watch-able and seemingly natural
  • Shot logs – ensure that someone is logging the shots, takes, how it fits into the bigger picture and any potential issues that the post production team might need to be aware of

Logistical planning

  • When arranging transport, allow space for equipment as well as people (crew, academics, any students attending).
  • Permission for filming must be arranged with the organisation responsible for the location. Keep a copy of documentation related to this permission safe
  • Ask participants being filmed to complete a model release form in advance.
  • Health and safety risk assessment forms should be completed in advance. You may need a trained first aider on location
  • Remember that Copyright may apply to things in shot eg the cover of a book, an artwork etc
  • Allow plenty of time for editing after filming. You may also need additional images and footage (with appropriate Copyright clearance) to be cut into the sequence

Post Production

  • Editing – think about the pace and especially if dialogue driven. People generally don’t like to watch one wide shot of two people talking for a long time without any close ups of the speaker / or ‘noddies’ of the interviewer
  • Keep it short. Make every second count
  • Remember to have a transcript or alternative that gives some meaning to the text.
  • You can host materials in Youtube or Vimeo, and there can be very good reasons to do so, but the University has a streaming service ‘NuVision‘ giving you more control over the video and who can see it

Many thanks to the Digital Media team and Steve Herron for their input.

Frontiers old and new

A lot awful lot of work has been going on behind the scenes following the University’s announcement of our partnership with FutureLearn to deliver free online courses, starting with our first course on Hadrian’s Wall.

We have  a great team in place for this, our first venture into MOOCs and we were really pleased to get “Team Hadrian” together for the first time on Friday.

You don’t have to be around Prof Ian Haynes and Dr Rob Collins for very long to appreciate their enthusiasm for Hadrian’s Wall and what it tells us of the rich picture of life on this Roman Frontier.  Our Digital Media Team (Stephen, Kevin, Helen and Dave) will be adding creative juices to bring relics and places to life; and Mike and Suzanne are on hand to pull it all together and offer advice on structure, narrative and engagement.

The day’s agenda covered a close look at the FutureLearn platform; discussion of filming practicalities; and a chance to further refine ideas on content to fit our goals and objectives.  As is fitting with a project involving new and ancient frontiers the team moved seamlessly between YouTube, GoogleDocs, BaseCamp and Post-it notes.


Visual Representation – proportional sizes

Sometimes it is more effective to represent figures in graphical form. One form of representation that is tricky to get right is proportional sizes of shape (square or circle) to illustrate the difference in size. For example, if you want to show one figure is twice the size of another, it is easy to create a circle that has a diameter twice as long as another, but this will be more than twice the volume, thus misrepresenting the difference.

The form at this link from think outside the box helps determine the correct relative size for shapes. You can then produce proportional shapes with an art package or PowerPoint to create your graphic.

This is one example showing the sizes of legions, cohorts and Centuries within the Roman army