Can video replace the written word?

Lynda Bergsma's goal is to teach rural Arizonans about good health. But rather than begin with nutrition or exercise, Ms. Bergsma starts by teaching her audience how to watch television. Ms. Bergsma is the associate director of the Rural Health Office at the University of Arizona. But recently, in addition to the seminars she teaches on health issues, she has begun to offer on a regular basis a class aimed at teaching her listeners how to cull information from a video format.

Her rationale: So many people today get vital information in video format that an educator must also be a trainer in media savvy. Many of those she works with, she says, seem confident that they can rely on videos to teach them what they need to know. But simply watching, she worries, is not enough.

"You can try to educate people all you want with video, brochures, or whatever, and you can raise their awareness of an issue by doing that, but you seldom change behavior," she says. "[What's needed] is really getting people to use their brains" when they watch video.

Bergsma's media seminars are one educator's response to a creeping concern among experts in the learning field. For all of their pedagogical virtues, video presentations tend to appeal more to emotions than to logical reasoning. Unless viewers make the effort to pose critical questions while they watch - and also make time to reflect on what they're seeing - some experts worry the shift from print- to video-based instruction could be coming at a cost of less comprehension.

Images by nature convey a prototype, says James Gee, professor of reading at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. They omit "the gray, the subtle, the complex, and the exceptions." When videos are not supplemented by the written word, he says, understanding of the subject is often diminished.

What worries him most, he says, is the field of professional training. There are medical doctors, for instance, who are basing decisions on patient care on information they have absorbed via video - a learning method he says is not good enough when it comes to such vital decisions.

In other fields, however, educators are embracing video as an ideal teaching tool for everything from learning tennis to making pastry.

In school classrooms, video seems to work well when teachers are aiming for an emotional response from students. Personal testimonies for instance, such as firsthand accounts from World War II, arrive with particularly strong impact when delivered via video, says Joe Blatt, a children's television producer and director of the program on technology and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Another example: programming that shows young people a possibility, such as a child doing a skilled activity, has proven to help unsure watchers "to believe they could do it." What's more, the video format is one kids often embrace as familiar.

In adult education, some see the rise of video as a victory for accessible knowledge. Not only is crucial information more readily available to those who aren't avid readers, but sometimes those who take in a video might be among the best informed on important subjects, says Elizabeth Thoman, founder of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles. "There could be a loss, but there is also a gain" from enabling patients to learn without always reading, Ms. Thoman says. "There are many ways to process the world, and not all of them are logical."

Across industries and geographic regions, video has become a staple in adult education. For those bored by pages of investment options, for instance, A.G. Edwards & Sons offers videos as well. At Killington Snowmobile Tours in Plymouth, Vt., nobody pulls the throttle on a rented "sled" before watching the 10-minute video.

Economics seems to be accelerating the trend. Video production costs are plunging even as the cost of printed materials is increasing. Videos are also relatively inexpensive to dub into multiple languages.

Overall, these are positive developments, says Gunther Kress, professor of English education at the University of London and author of "Literacy in the New Media Age."

Though he wants to preserve reading as a form of "mental gymnastics that's good for the mind," he regards the experience of processing motion pictures as an "intellectually much more demanding" one. And because both media can "do certain things very well," he expects learning to advance with the help of each one - as long as people create time to think.

"'What's in danger of being lost is the pace that allows for reflection," says Dr. Kress in a telephone interview from London. "Without reflection, [there's] no critique, no ability to work out your own position in relation to what's being presented to you."

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