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Commercials in the Classroom

Ruth Guthrie

Department of Computer Information Systems
California Polytechnic University, Pomona


In spring of 2004, I taught a Web development course in which students learn the language HTML and a few other Web related topics such as multimedia, graphics and JavaScript. It has always been a fun class because the programming is relatively simple and students get to view their results quickly and easily. There is a lot of room for creativity in the class. Students are required to use original written and graphic materials for the creation of a business oriented Web site. This requires them to experience elements of user interface design, marketing, writing and the end-to-end production issues of creating a commercial Web site.

Still, as interesting as I find this course, there are times when the class drags and the students are inattentive. Several studies (Johnstone & Percival, 1976, Wolvin, 1983; Wankat, 2002) indicate that 10 to 15 minutes is the amount of time that passes before attention wanes during an undergraduate lecture. The problem, of course, is that students cannot retain the content of the lecture if the lack of attention is too great. One study showed that during the first 10 minutes of lecture, students retained 70 percent of the material and during the last 10 minutes, they retained only 20 percent (Hartley & Davis, 1978). The 15-minute duration is particularly interesting considering most television networks have a commercial break at that interval. This is one of the compelling reasons for active learning (Prince, 2004). By designing activities where students can actively learn the course content, student attention is extended, thus improving learning.

Assignment Development and Structure

To this end, the Web development course was taught with an additional requirement for students to create and perform commercials related to technology. Students could act the commercial out in front of the class or they could tape and edit digital video and play their commercial to the class. Either method was acceptable and students were not penalized for taking a low-tech approach. During the first class meeting, students broke into small groups, created a technological commercial and performed it for the class. This activity gave them a chance to practice before they were required to do the assignment individually.

Scheduled presentations were spaced throughout the term, with students typically called to give their commercials at the end of a lecture or demonstration. Most videotaped and edited them prior to class. Many of the videos were complex, requiring sound, titles and actors. Students uploaded the videos to their Web sites and played them when it was their turn. Operationally, commercials broke the class into “chunks.” If the class had a lecture and lab, it gave a nice segue to the next section of the class. Students looked forward to seeing what their peers had created.

The assignment was not worth a lot of points. However, students, like many of us, were curious about how to edit digital video, and this activity gave them an excuse to try it.

Outcomes and Benefits

There were several key benefits to the students:

  • The assignment taught students how to integrate multimedia on the Web. They learned the course content of compression, file formats, video capture and editing and coding a Web page to include video.
  • It was a fun assignment that required students to be creative and come up with an original, compelling idea with very little instruction.
  • It was not only empowering, students found, but very satisfying.
  • It gave them a chance to reflect on the role of technology in society via commercials.
  • It gave them a chance to learn and create on their own.

Here are some descriptions of what they produced:

“Kill Jill Nikon Commercial” by Minh Quach: This ad spoofs an action scene from the Quentin Tarantino movie “Kill Bill.” The lengthy, active material required a lot of editing to make the martial arts components look appropriate. The student filmed it in her garage as agent “CherryBomb Head” fighting with friend/spy “Mamba Snake.” After the fight scene, a screen reads “Nikon, worth fighting for.” After the course ended, we sent a copy to the Nikon Corporation and received a message back that they liked the movie very much. (Minh Quach, 25.8M, ~2.5 minutes)

“Guide to Complete Desktop Feng Shui” by Steven Lu: This humorous commercial uses several screen shots with rearranged icons to sell inner happiness while working on the computer. The video uses clever dialog, screen shots and voice effects to add a Ginsu-knife-wielding chef flavor to the advertisement. The student entered the video in the Microsoft 2005 Imagine Cup. (Steven Lu, 46.7M, ~2.25 minutes)

“Do You Know Where Your Cell Phone Is?” by Ryan Gutierrez: Joe trips in the dark and hurts himself. A narrator suggests using the cell phone as a flashlight. This is shown on film also, advocating the use of cell phones in the dark for survival. (Ryan Gutierrez, 13.9M, ~50 seconds)

“Building Your Own Computer” by Jay To: Shows the frustration and injuries acquired when building your own computer, including blood loss, electrocution and temper-fit. The commercial closes showing Jay happily playing computer games and stating that the satisfaction of building your own computer is priceless. (Jay To, 6.4M, ~76 seconds)

Interestingly, many of the videos had the theme of either frustration with technology or needing technology to improve one's situation or status. That is to say, if you are a CIS student without a wireless router in your house, your CIS peers view you as lacking technological status. Similarly, having a cell phone with high-end features was portrayed as very desirable.

Some students relied heavily on technology for production of their commercial. For this reason, it may seem too ambitious for other classes to use this type of assignment. However, remember that using technology was not a requirement. Students were shown an example of digital video but were also given the option to act the commercial out in class. Only a few students performed their commercials live, including one who acted out a clever commercial about how much better it is to use a flash drive than carry floppy disks. In the commercial, he played two characters, the have-not guy (floppy disk) and the have guy (flash drive). Swapping hats in a dialog let him explain the advantages of the flash drive. This approach was nice because it required the student to make a class presentation in a creative way.

Most students did use digital video to do the assignment. Although Cal Poly Pomona had cameras that students could use and lab facilities where they could edit, most students used their own equipment. The digital editing software (Microsoft Movie Maker) is free. Students were motivated to learn to use these technologies. An assignment gave them an excuse to do something they were already curious about. Several students added unexpected complexity to their projects such as transitions, voice-overs, music, and small special effects. While these elements were not required, it was gratifying to see students exceed the expectations of the project because they were engaged in the creative process.

Instructional Applications and Advice

Using this assignment in other courses obviously requires changing the topic of the commercial. A biology instructor could integrate ethics into the course by requiring students to do commercials about cloning or conducting experimental trials on people. In an ancient history class, students could advertise cultural artifacts from that era such as makeup, clothing or music. For statistics, students could make statistical claims about the products and then have the class discuss the evidence used in the claim.

At the beginning of the term, it was useful to have the students go through an exercise so that they had an idea of what a commercial should contain. I showed students and posted a sample commercial, filmed in the style of a popular anti-drug commercial, about parents knowing what their children are doing on Instant Messenger at night.

Several students wanted to do topics unrelated to technology, one of whom did a beautiful film on sushi, so enamored with his idea that he forgot to do a commercial on technology. The student was required to resubmit the project using an appropriate topic.

It was useful to schedule the term in advance so that students had a specific date to present their commercials. In addition, I used office hours to help students with ideas for this project and with technology. Some students also needed technical help with the digital video capture and editing. A few students were tentative about the quality of their creative ideas. It was satisfying to be able to help them build this confidence.

When I do this in class again, I will also assign a short, reflective essay that they will post on the Web with their assignment. This would give students a chance to practice writing and give them time to reflect on why they chose a particular topic and its relevance to technology, pop culture, and the future. I really enjoyed this assignment. Where else in their college career will they get a chance to stage a fight with a friend, pretend aliens have landed on campus, or become a Feng Shui Zen master? It added an element of fun to the class. Perhaps years from now, they will tell their children about how they made a commercial about optical mice in CIS 311.


Hartley, J., & Davies, I. (1978). Note taking: A critical review. Programmed learning and educational technology, 15, 207–224.

Johnstone, A. H., & Percival, F. (1976). Attention breaks in lectures. Education in chemistry, 13, 49-50.

Prince, M. (July 2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineering education, 4-5.

Wankat, P. (2002). The effective efficient professor: Teaching, scholarship and service, Allyn and Bacon: Boston, MA.

Wolvin, A. D. (1983). Improving listening skills. In R. B. Rubin (ed.), Improving speaking and listening skills. New Directions for College Learning Assistance, no.12. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Posted June 23, 2005.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2005 by Ruth Guthrie.

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