For almost ten years, I’ve been teaching novices to make digital stories—short, personal videos that combine a recorded voiceover with digitized photos and music. The question of what software to use for this work is an open one: every choice seems to have its shortcomings. I’ve used Sony Vegas Movie Studio (stable and easy for beginners to use, but PC-only); Adobe Premiere Elements (too bloated and complicated); Soundslides (in many ways perfect, except that it has only one audio track and requires a convoluted set of maneuvers to export a final .mp4 file); Final Cut Express (too complicated for novices, and now obsolete), and Windows MovieMaker (limited, crashy). And beyond the shortcomings of particular programs, installed software in general typically requires a big initial investment, and on institution-owned machines, approval and personnel to do the install.
As I was preparing to teach my Digital Storytelling in the Community course this quarter in my department’s new Mac lab, I returned again to the software question. A little web searching led me to WeVideo, a browser-based video editor that a number of well-regarded digital storytelling training organizations have been experimenting with, including Creative Narrations and the Center for Digital Storytelling. After doing a bit of testing with a trial license, I took the plunge, choosing a 75-license, 6-month Higher Ed subscription, at a cost of $249 (as compared to the $2k my department spent a few years back to outfit our 22-seat lab with Final Cut Express, and the $1k I was quoted for a lab’s worth of Soundslides Plus).
We’re now eight weeks into using WeVideo, and the verdict? It’s great. For producing digital stories made of audio recordings and still photos, in a lab with a fast Internet connection, it works almost perfectly.
Here are what I see as WeVideo’s positive features, as well as some concerns I have…
- Easy-to-use interface, with enough options to create a robust story (unlimited tracks, Ken Burns effect, ability to add adjustment points and adjust opacity and volume).
- Users can do all media editing in one software interface, including crop and clean up their photos, edit audio, and create text slides.
- Allows for collaborative editing and easy sharing of media. This feature has been quite helpful for me as a teacher: I can now upload a batch of student voiceover recordings to my account and share each file with the appropriate student, as shown in Figure 1. No more running around the room with a flash drive.
- Allows account ‘administrators’ to see in-progress work. Before our class’ video editing began, I created a project for each student, and then invited that student to their project. This setup (see Figure 2) allows me look in on their videos as they’re developing. While there is some big-brother potential in this arrangement, having such access allows me to easily give feedback on project drafts.
- Story-makers can work wherever they have an Internet connection: no need for lab access. This is huge. Normally, I have to give a lot of class days for production time, with the assumption that students can only work on their projects when they’re in our lab. With a browser-based editor, students can edit on their own time, at any computer with an Internet connection.
- Because all media is uploaded to WeVideo’s servers, a lot of complicated file management issues that typically cause headaches are eliminated. This is also huge! No more giant red X’s and reconnecting missing media. No more hectoring people to set up a media folder on the desktop and to not save to their flash drive.
- It’s stable and predictable. We only had one big unpleasant surprise, when a student late in the project decided to play around with story ‘themes.’ Don’t do this. With a couple of clicks it’s easy to replace your music, transitions, and title cards with some auto-generated oddities.
- Projects autosave, reducing the possibility of catastrophic project losses. Note that when I got one panicked student email about a mysteriously lost project (which I suspect may have been accidentally deleted by the student); I sent WeVideo Support an email. Within eight minutes, I had a reply, and after a few questions, Support had restored the missing project.
- You can’t do anything without a connection to WeVideo’s servers. This means that without an Internet connection, you’re sunk. Also, a slow Internet connection dramatically slows down the uploading and initial media processing time (though I don’t think the editing process is dramatically slowed down).
- The editor is built on Adobe Flash, and older computers with older versions of Flash do not run the editor seamlessly. I had one student working on an older Mac, and the edits she’d made to her audio track sounded full of clicks and miscues that disappeared when we moved her to a newer machine. A lot of organizations won’t have the newest computers running the newest browsers with updated Flash.
- The editor has a few features that can frustrate novice editors. Foremost, the Main video track is “gapless,” meaning it encourages you to work linearly and closes any empty spaces you try to leave between media items. There are workarounds: you can, for example, stay in the Main track and use black slugs as temporary stand-ins for unknown images. Or you can work in a different video track—only the track labeled “Main” is gapless—and later drag that track’s media into the Main track (where it needs to be to add transitions). However, you’re not able to select multiple images and drag them together, which makes this second workaround a bit tedious. Another confusing editing behavior is that when you’ve made a bunch of splits in the process of editing an audio track, it’s not possible to push the first of those split clips to the right and have the subsequent clips ripple (some of the clips, oddly, fall into different tracks).
- Your media lives WeVideo’s servers. Although we’re becoming more and more comfortable with our important stuff being stored in the cloud, some organizations may bristle at the idea of personal media being stored on the servers of a small company like WeVideo.
- You can’t view the project full-screen until you export it. This means that it’s not until the very end of the process when you’ll see problems with image size or resolution.
- The Big Brother factor: not only can you look in on student projects as they’re working, you also see each user’s last login date right from the main Administration screen. I realize this feature is useful in some circumstances, but I do wish it wasn’t so in the forefront.
- There is a 500 MB file size maximum for uploads. While this isn’t a problem for most photos and short audio files, it is for video with minimal compression (for example, 500 MB would let you upload <2 minutes of HD video from a DSLR camera). You can work around the limit, to some degree, by chopping up video into smaller segments, but this limitation would seem to make the software inappropriate for full-fledged video production projects.
I was initially concerned about the Higher Ed account’s limits on storage (40 GB) and export time (4 hrs/month), but it’s not been an issue. Granted, we’re not using video, so our storage needs are not so extreme. Most of my fourteen students did multiple best-quality .wav audio recordings, and I uploaded all of these files with no storage limit issues. Plus, you can upgrade your storage, even after you’ve made your initial purchase.
The long and the short here is that for classroom digital storytelling projects, and likely also for organizational digital storytelling initiatives, WeVideo is a fabulous tool. I am not normally a booster for specific software, but there’s something awfully promising here in this move from physical software that needs to be installed and updated, to WeVideo’s model of browser-based, subscription software.