GIFs for Everyone

[Parts of this post have been assembled out of earlier posts from 2012 and 2013]

Last month,the Associate Press and British Movietone announced they were uploading 550,000 films and videos from their archive to YouTube. These new additions will join about 85,000 films uploaded a year ago by British Pathé. This is good news to any historian of modern Britain and the empire, as these films provide a vivid glimpses into a past that we are usually required to explore through text. For me, this is especially good news because I love GIFs.

I started thinking about using GIFs in the classroom in 2012 when I marking midterms as a Teaching Assistant for HIS 2179, The Two World Wars. Like every exam, this midterm demonstrated the content that students had difficulty understanding. The course was aimed at second-year undergraduates and attracted a good number of students who were not majoring in history. One of the essay questions in the exam asked students to assess the impact of technology on military operations during the First World War. In the responses, it was clear that a number of students didn’t grasp the concept of quick-firing artillery. Some said that quick-firing artillery allowed crews to fire their guns without changing the cannon (I suppose that’s technically true), some explained that this invention allowed crews to fire without reloading, while other responses were even further from the mark. The technical details didn’t really matter, but it was a bit disheartening to peer into this warped view of basic military technology.

I thought back to the visual aid the professor used to illustrate the hydro-pneumatic buffer, it was a simple three-step diagram that showed how the barrel moved back. This diagram made sense to me and seems to have made sense to most students in the class, but the results of the midterm suggest that some students didn’t get the concept. As I marked their exams, I wondered if there was a better way to demonstrate how the hydro-pneumatic buffer worked. A video clip seemed like the obvious solution, but I’ve always found that using videos in lectures disrupts the flow of the lecture. You have to set up your clip, play the clip, then summarize it. If you just want to explain something short like the action of an artillery piece firing, then you either need to find a long clip of endless artillery guns firing in succession, or you need to keep replaying the same short clip. Then there’s the risk of complications if the clip doesn’t function, adding an additional disruption. There must be another option.

After thinking about it, I realized that a solution could be found in my favourite internet distraction: the GIF. Yes, the GIF need not just be reserved for entertainment by presenting an endless animated loop of an adorable animal or a violent mishaps, in the right hands the GIF can be used to teach students about First World War artillery.  So I scoured YouTube for a few good clips and was pleased with the result.

I managed to find a suitable clip of a British 18-pounder crew in action, and another of a French 75mm crew. Both GIFs clearly show the concept of the hydro-pneumatic buffer in action. The added advantages of the GIFs is that – unlike a video clip – there is no need to cue the footage, wait for it to play, compete with its sound, or click to replay the video for a second view. The GIF plays on a continuous loop, which allows the lecturer to take as much or as little time to explain the pertinent concepts which are being demonstrated.
The following year, I had to opportunity to deliver a guest lecture on Operation Barbarossa. Technology did not play a particularly prominent role in my lecture, mobility was an important theme. Some dynamic GIFs playing on my powerpoint slide would certainly drive the point home.

Naturally, my lecture explained how the rapid advance of German forces in the summer of 1941 was slowed by the rasputitsa, as autumn rains that washed away unpaved roads. While I described the impact of this delay on the larger operational and strategic context, the contrast was illustrated with GIFs on successive slides.

Other newsreels and propaganda films were edited down into GIFs to illustrate the mobilization of the Soviet home front as well as the German occupation. It was difficult to assess how the students reacted to these GIFs, but I got the sense that when I transitioned from a slide with an ordinary still image to a slide with a GIF, the students perked up a little. GIFs may not be the most engaging way to reach out to a lecture hall of undergraduate students, but I think they helped my lecture stand out.

GIFs are relatively easy to make and with so much content available on YouTube, it is possible to make a GIF that suits almost any aspect of modern history. My workflow is:

  1. Find a relevant clip on YouTube and download it. Doing a Google search for “YouTube to MP4” will present a number of sites that allow you to download any video from YouTube.
  2. Edit the clip to a 20-30 second segment that will be looped into a GIF. Most computers come with video-editing software already installed, so this is usually pretty easy to do.
  3. Convert the edited clip to a GIF. Much like in step 1, a Google search for “MP4 to GIF” will present a number of websites that will let you upload an MP4 and convert it into a GIF.

GIFs are nothing fancy, but I like them and they seems to keep the students’ attention.


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