How & Why to Use Social Media to Create Meaningful Learning Assignments

I recently completed an online workshop through Online Learning Consortium (OLC) “Exploring Hashtags for Learning”.  We learned how to use hashtags, but also strategies to incorporate social media into activities and assignments to engage and involve students in meaningful learning. Following is the assignment I developed  (using Instagram) as part of the workshop, but first I discuss the rationale to answer ‘why’—why use social media in learning activities first place? 

Students Learning

WHY Use Social Media to Support Learning
The next phase in course design, for online and face-to-face, will involve developing methods that integrate tools (e.g. smart phones) and applications (e.g. Twitter or other social media platforms) that students use daily, if not hourly. It’s inevitable if we want to make learning relevant, practical and effective. Not only is learning moving towards a student-centered model but students are now expecting to be contributors to their learning—to be involved in their education by contributing to course content.

Yet I want to emphasize that using social media does not mean that learning is not rigorous. Going forward educators will need to determine how to leverage digital delivery platforms creatively to facilitate learning of course concepts and to foster critical thinking among students of all ages. Research suggests that student involvement leads to higher levels of learning and contributes to outcomes that include persistence, satisfaction, and academic achievement (Astin, 1985; Kruase, 2005). The research was published well before Facebook and Twitter, yet social media by the behaviours it generates, lends itself to involving students in learning when used as a tool, not as technology that teaches.

Instagram_Icon_LargeCourse Assignment
For the workshop assignment in “Exploring Hashtags for Learning” I chose Instagram— mainly because I’ve little familiarity with Instagram in an education context and wanted to determine if it could be applied to foster learning. Instagram is a social media platform where users share images, typically their own pictures taken with their phone, through an Instagram app. Pew research shows that Instagram is the third most popular social media site after Facebook and Twitter, though Instagram has been growing exponentially.

Assignment Details: “Hashtags for Learning” Workshop
Below are the (summarized) directions for the workshop assignment:

“Design a specific example of activity or activities that utilize a hashtag with the purpose to engage your students…Include the following information: What is your learning objective? How does it include engagement? How will it be assessed?”

Though I don’t teach a course currently, I work with faculty to help develop active learning activities designed to engage students, and to ensure it aligns closely with one or more course learning objectives.  To that end, I selected an art history course, which is similar to a course I worked on with a professor last year. Instagram lends itself well to an assignment where pictures can communicate concepts, and the comment feature in Instagram allows students to articulate which concepts are featured in their image and how.

HOW: “Hashtags for Learning” Assignment
Developed for Undergraduate Online Course “ARC112: Art History Survey II”.

Following is the background information on the course, its description, the learning objective the assignment is designed to meet, and a description of the activity.

Course Description: This course offers an introduction to Western art history. It has two primary aims: to learn the skills necessary for visual literacy; and to acquire a broad knowledge of the important themes, movements, and individuals in Western art history. Attention will be given primarily to analysis of the form and content of work of art and to understanding how they fit into a historical context.

Activity Description: Using Instagram students will, through images of sculpture, architecture, paintings or other art forms they encounter in everyday life, identify major art styles and movements. This activity supports one of the learning outcomes of the course that aligns with communication skills: “to include effective development, interpretation and expression of ideas through written, oral and visual communication.”

Students are engaged by actively seeking out art forms in their everyday lives to post to Instagram and by engaging with classmates’ posts and commenting on them, which encourages students to apply course concepts.

Instructions for Students:
Following are the instructions for students. The course hashtag #ARC112;  created specifically for this course. Providing clear, concise instructions for students is critical; doing so encourages students to focus on applying and learning concepts, and not focusing on the technology.

Overview of Activity[for students]:
The purpose of this activity is to apply concepts learned in the course about the movements in Western art studied in this course by analyzing art forms and determining the influence of movements and styles on the artist’s work.

To accomplish this you’ll use Instagram, either your own account (see instructions here to create an account), or you can create an alternate Instagram account for the purpose of this course (see instructions here). You will take photos of art forms that represent or reflect a movement of art studied in this course. You can choose any art forms—sculpture, mural, paintings, street art, collages, etc. encountered in your everyday life which could be in a museum (though not necessary), in a park or public place, on campus, or other place.


  • Post 2 images between week 2 and 5, of a work of art, sculpture, painting, or architectural detail, using the tag #ARC112 that reflect one of the art movements listed below. Each image must represent a different movement and include a caption that describes: the movement the work represents, how the work represents the selected movement, and why you chose it.
  • Post a 3rd image in week 6 with the caption “What am I” in using our class tag #ARC112. The image can be partial image of the art form. The purpose of this activity is to have your classmates identify the art from, and determine which movement or style the art form represents.  Engage with classmates who provide comments: giving hints or suggestions. Reveal the full image in week 8.
  • Respond to 2 or more classmates’ “What am I” images in week 6 and 7 with your guess of what the art form is, the movement or style the artwork represents and how.

This activity is worth 10 points—10% of your course grade.

Art Movements:
Renaissance  •  Baroque •  Romanticism • Realism  • Impressionism  • Post-Impressionism  • Modernism

By searching the web and from my classmates in the workshop I learned of creative and unique ways that educators are using social media for learning.  Yet, the most important factor when integrating any tool is considering the learning objective first, then determining which tool and activity will support learning and engage students.

Further Reading on Social Media and Learning



Facebook for MOOCs: A Bridge for Student Learning

Facebook-Groups-e1291281035929I’ve long believed that Facebook is one of the most effective platforms for student discussion and collaboration within Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other online course formats. Facebook is a virtual meeting place that encourages authentic interaction, sharing and collaboration. I’ve found that closed Facebook groups, created for a specific course, generate more discussion, exchanges and sharing among a greater number of students than any forum within a MOOC platform.

A recent study, The Role of Social Media in MOOCs presented at the annual ACM Conference on Learning at Scale, validates Facebook’s effectiveness for student engagement. Researchers conducted a study using three MOOCs on Coursera’s platform comparing students use of Facebook groups to discussion forums within the Coursera site (Zheng et al. 2016). They found that students were more engaged in Facebook groups than within the MOOC discussion forums (see figure 1 below), and engaged for longer periods on the Facebook site, even after the course ended. Students also admitted they preferred interacting on social media due to its immediacy—the quicker response times to questions and posts, as well as the less chaotic environment. Quite compelling is the fact that students stated Facebook gave them a “sense of community” (pg. 423).

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“The Role of Social Media In MOOCs: How to Use Social Media to Enhance Retention”.  Proceeding of the Third (2016) ACM Conference on Learning @ Scale, pages 419-428.

Why is this so? I suggest two reasons. First, because Facebook is the most used social networking site globally, for a variety of reasons—its low barrier to participation, and ease of use (Pew Research, 2014). Given the numbers of people who use Facebook across nations, more students are familiar with Facebook than any other tool or feature within the MOOC platform, so it’s no wonder they are more likely and willing to engage with their peers. Below are some telling comments from students of the study that indicate why Facebook preferred over the MOOC platform.

“Sometimes, I actually want to reply or make some updates
on Coursera, but when I think I need to login on my
computer, I postponed doing it and then I forgot to do it later.”
“I frequently forget my password or account name. I know this is stupid, but it happens frequently not just on me but on many of my friends!”

Second,  Facebook creates a sense of community. Learners are able to establish a sense of presence, they have a sense of being there and being together. Students can see who they are interacting with—a real person. Facebook is transparent, unlike MOOC platforms where students can sign up and create any user name not linked to their identify and post in forums anonymously.  Interaction within MOOC platforms feels like one is communicating in a vacuum.  This transparency fosters a sense of presence and trust, aligning with the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model. The CoI model is a theoretical framework that outlines a process for creating deep and meaningful online learning experiences. It’s based on three interdependent dimensions of presence–social, cognitive and teaching presence (Garrison Anderson & Archer, 2000).

Social presence is the ability of participants to identify within a community, in order to communicate in a trusted environment, where learners can develop personal relationships by projecting their individual personalities (Rourke et al., 2001). With its transparency, ease of use, and low barriers to participation, Facebook embodies this concept of social presence, enables students to engage socially leading to dialogue and collaboration.

Community of Inquiry Model, Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000)

How It Works
Facebook groups can be created by the instructor or institution administrators as a closed group where students request to join. Though in MOOCs, students often take the initiative and create a group for course participants, opening up the group well before the course begins. Frequently participants will create smaller groups for those interested in specific course-related topic areas; they find one another via the interaction and dialogue. For further info see Group Basics on Facebook.

The study’s findings have tremendous implications for online educators and institutions. If students in online learning environments are more likely to engage with class peers on social platforms, like Facebook, it’s well worth our time to examine further how we can thoughtfully integrate social media to engage students and deepen their learning experience.


How to Make Learning Matter to Online Students

“Classic Learning” by Alan Levine on Flickr

One of the core premises of “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” is to make learning matter to students (Brown, Rodediger & McDaniel, 2014). The authors emphasize that learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal. Intuitively it’s a logical premise; of course we want learning to matter to students, where learning is relevant and applicable to their contexts. Yet how do we know if students perceive course concepts as relevant and meaningful? And even if they don’t, does this matter? The consensus is that it does. Evidence indicates that when learning is relevant, students are motivated and engaged→ learning is more effective and outcomes are more likely achieved. This phenomenon is described in “Make it Stick”  and in recent research (Bernard, 2010). In practice, I’ve seen how students are more likely to engage and participate in online courses when assignments encourage them to apply course concepts and ideas by building on their existing knowledge and experience.

Framework for Relevant Learning – Andragogy
The concept of making learning relevant to students is not new. Malcolm Knowles, creator of andragogy the theory of adult learning, outlines a set of assumptions of how adults learn; relevance is a core element (1984). Andragogy suggests adults learn differently than children, and learning programs tailored to characteristics of adult students, such as work experience, existing knowledge and life situations, are more likely to motivate and engage students in the learning process. Below are core assumptions of andragogy that serve as guidelines for making learning matter to students:

1. Adults need to know why they need to learn something
2. Adults need to learn ‘experientially’
3. Adults approach learning as problem-solving
4. Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

Online Student_ThinkingStrategies for Making Learning Matter
I’ve found that by applying adult learning principles to the design of online courses, assignments and learning activities for instance, payoffs are significant in terms of student participation. I’ve seen this time and again. Online students are sensitive to busy work—activities or assignments that don’t appear to have a purpose, don’t require critical analysis, don’t appear to align with course learning objectives, or have real world application. Granted, these are students’ perceptions, yet it is beneficial to explain the purpose of an assignment, to describe how it will further learning and be of value, or be applicable later in the course. Following are practical strategies that I’ve applied when designing courses in an effort to make learning matter. Comments highlighting my experiences are in blue.

  • Describe an assignment in three parts; 1) outline the purpose of an assignment: how it fits in with objectives, what students will gain from the assignment, why they are doing the assignment, 2) describe assignment details and logistics: provide a description of assignment, format, resources, due dates, rubrics, and 3) describe technical logistics and details, e.g. any platforms or software needed for the assignment, collaboration tools for group assignments, where and how to submit the assignment e.g. within the LMS, or Turn-it-In, etc.  Frequently I’ve seen assignments that lack detail in at least one of the three mentioned here. This creates confusion for students, potential for lower-quality assignments, need for frequent reminders/clarifications, more student questions, and it delays students getting on the path to learning.
  • Provide opportunity for students to apply and share their experience and knowledge of subject matter: encourage students to draw upon work experience or existing knowledge. For example in a discussion question activity, include opportunity for students to share their experiences as applicable to the topic. Doing so can be as simple as adding another component to a discussion question where students incorporate examples from their personal or work experience.
  • Create opportunities where students research and/or share how (select) course concepts apply to real world scenarios or situations. This can be done within a discussion forum activity, a blog post assignment, written reflection activity or other type of written assignment. Alternatively, assignments can be based upon a real world challenge or problem the student is facing within their work, community or personal situation. As discussed earlier, the key is to highlight to for students why they are doing the activity—even though it may seem obvious. An example of how a question might be framed—here’s how a question from an undergraduate course in nursing might read “…to demonstrate how (concepts) apply to current situation in clinical setting, describe how this would be integrated…”.

Closing Thoughts
Making learning matter to learners does matter; where learning is relevant and applicable, especially for adult students. Considering adult learner characteristics is good practice that can lead to motivated and engaged students. Yet online learning does require a different approach than used for face-to-face settings—one that considers characteristics not only of the students, but the medium. The strategies outlined here are a starting point.


Does it Take More or Less Time to Facilitate and Develop an Online Course? Finally, Some Answers

How much time does it take to teach an online course? Does teaching online take more or less time than teaching face-to-face? How much time does it take instructors to develop an online course? — Instructor Time Requirements to Develop and Teach Online Courses (Freeman, 2015)

Time business conceptA study released in March of this year set out to answer these burning questions that the majority of online educators would like answers to. There’s considerable anecdotal evidence that favors both sides—it takes more time versus less time to facilitate an online course when using a face-to-face course as benchmark. The purpose of this study was to nail down the facts—to measure the perceptions of and actual time spent developing and teaching online courses. The findings are significant for institutions and educators involved in online education for several reasons. Professional development for one. The report reveals areas where survey-respondents struggled during the course development phase, and where the majority of time was spent when facilitating (the conclusions are surprising). Secondly, results may be helpful for institutions when considering compensation and work-allocation models. Institutions can use the results as benchmark, at the very least the study may act as catalyst for constructive conversations about compensation and support for online course development and facilitation. And finally, it may help online instructors gain insight into their own teaching experiences by considering the experiences of  other educators that have experience with face-to-face and online courses.

This post highlights the findings and suggests factors for educators to consider when it comes to, 1) the time spent developing online versus face-to-face courses, and 2) how much time is invested in online facilitation, and how it compares to face-to-face instructions.

Survey Details
To put the results into context—the survey gathered data from 68 instructors from a total of 165 solicited from three universities across eight academic disciplines. Each respondent had developed an average of 2.13 online courses and had experience teaching an average of 2.03 online courses, and had been teaching at the university level for an average of 14.2 years (Freeman, 2015).

1) Course Development Time: Pedagogical Learning Curve Steepest
Survey results confirmed that developing online courses is indeed more time consuming than developing face-to-face courses. Though the time required declines when the same instructor develops a second or third online course. Twenty-nine percent of respondents indicated they spend over 100 hours (median of 70 hours) to develop their (first) online course. This significant number of hours is likely due to the fact that 59% of respondents developed over 90% of the course without any assistance, which included developing content, assessments, assignments, and time associated with course design. The other 41% received course design support from instructional designer(s) and/or used ready-made content available through textbook publishers. Also significant is the technological learning curve which was found to be shorter than the pedagogical learning curve, in other words instructors required more time to determine how to implement pedagogical methods, how to create learning experiences and deliver content appropriate for the online format than they did learning about the features and nuances of the technology used to deliver the course. The learning curve is described as the time it takes to “get used to” the course elements [platform, tech features] and/or the method of teaching.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 9.42.50 AM
(Freeman, 2015)

Developing a quality online course is complex due to the fact that technology adds yet another layer to course design and one that requires a unique skill set. In addition there is an interdependent relationship between technology and pedagogy specific to online courses—for instance the features of a LMS platform will determine and shape the course and the teaching methods. Using the discussion forum as an example—the flexibility of the forum feature—how easy it is to set up by the course designer for group assignments, and how it can be used by students for a group assignment whether it can facilitate the communication and collaboration that is required for the assignment will dictate how effectively the ‘method’ is executed in the course.

Online course design requires a breadth of skills that includes technical knowledge, not only familiarity with LMS features, but also outside tools including social media platforms that can enhance student learning.  Knowledge of user-focused design, or web design principles is also critical in delivering an intuitive, learning experience for students (How Five Web Design Principles Can Boost Student Learning). Second are the pedagogical methods, in other words how learning is sequenced, framed and presented to students.  This array of skills required is far beyond the scope of most faculty, who are experts in their field of study, not necessarily course design. Realistically creating an online course requires at least two or more individuals with specific skills sets working together to develop an engaging, intuitive and quality learning experience.

The onus is on institutions to provide not only professional development for faculty in course design principles and strategies, but to provide support in the technical and pedagogical aspects.

2) BIG Time Commitment Facilitating First Online Course — Levels Off After 2nd Time, But Grading Involves More Time Investment
Though respondents in the survey originally perceived that teaching online took more time than teaching face-to-face, by the third time facilitating respondents reported that it took them about the same amount of time as it did a similar face-to-face course.

There is supporting evidence to the earlier finding that teaching an online course the second and third time becomes about as time-consuming as teaching a face-to-face course the second and third time.  The factors that still remain more time-consuming for online teaching compared with face-to-face teaching, even after teaching the course three times, are Instructor-Student Interaction and Grading & Assessment, the two specific factors  that can not be prepared in advance for online courses (unlike Content Development and Pre-Semester Setup).

Sixty-nine percent of survey respondents indicated that it took ‘much more’ and ‘more’ time to facilitate an online class for the first time. Yet by the third time, it dropped to 25% in this same categories (table 4 below), which does support the learning curve theory. These findings suggest that acknowledging that more of the instructor’s time will be required the first and even the second time facilitating a course, is important for both the instructor and the institution. Though it does also suggest that professional development is needed for instructors—development focused on facilitation skills that will support skills specific to the uniqueness of online instruction. Such training can potentially reduce the learning curve for instructors, as well as reinforce the building of effective skills, best practices, and efficient use of time.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 9.55.10 AM
Annotated screenshot that shows two-thirds of  respondents by the third time facilitating online indicate that it took ‘somewhat more’, ‘more’ or ‘much more’ time to grade and assess students in an online course than face-to-face (Freeman, 2015).

A startling (and significant) finding of this study is the time dedicated to grading and assessing online students. It appears that the time dedicated to grading students’ work actually increased from the first to third time of facilitating an online course (table 4). Two-thirds of the respondents indicated by the third time it took ‘somewhat more’, ‘more’ or ‘much more’ time to grade and assess students in an online course than face-to-face.  I find these results encouraging since an instructor’s feedback of students’ work is a critical component that can motivate students, deepen their knowledge and push them to think critically (Getzlaf et al., 2009). Implications are that skill development in this area are needed and will benefit not only students but can help instructors to provide feedback more efficiently. There are several technology tools and applications that can help instructors achieve efficiency and to make the most of giving feedback using online tools that deliver meaningful, quality feedback for students (Morrison, 2014). Again professional development is needed in the area of grading and assessment to support instructors in their efforts.

By no means is this study the definitive answer on the time requirements for developing and facilitating online courses, but it is an excellent starting point for conversations about ‘time’ needed to create quality online learning experiences.


How Five Web Design Principles Boost Student Learning in an Online Course

“Our team realized quickly that we needed to do a better job cross referencing material on our course site. For example if we mention syllabus, we must link to it. Some students we have learned want a great deal of guidance” MOOC instructor, Karen Head (2013)

great-designIn the quote above, without realizing it, the instructor was referring to the concept of ‘user experience’. And it’s not guidance students wanted so much as an intuitive learning experience. Creating a user-friendly course site begins with incorporating web design principles. Even the most basic of principles customized to online course design reduces barriers associated with virtual learning by minimizing distractions, highlighting concepts and making resources readily accessible. Embedding a link into the phrase ‘assignment guidelines’ for instance, when the assignment is referred to within a course page, is an example of making resources readily available (if the assignment guidelines are within the syllabus, refer students to the page number). This reduces the amount of time students spend searching and frees up time for learning.

The challenge of designing online courses is not only pedagogical, but also technical, which is the category that ‘usability’ falls under. We are at the point with online learning where pedagogy and technology are interdependent; where a well-designed, user-friendly course with a clear learning path needs to adhere to technical principles as well as pedagogical ones. Technology is a new form of pedagogy. The course site design, how content is presented, is an aspect of online pedagogy. In this post I cover five principles of web design that are essential to online course design.

Retail sites frequently adhere to best practices for web design given customers (users) are more likely to spend time and money on an attractive, intuitive website. I suggest educators use similar web design principles to support their students.

Before we examine the principles, defining user experience (UX) is in order. There are numerous definitions of user experience but the one below specific to web design, incorporates key elements of the entire experience:

“User experience (UX) is about how a person feels about using a system. User experience highlights the experiential, affective, meaningful and valuable aspects of human-computer interaction (HCI) …. It also covers a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease of use and efficiency of the system. User experience is subjective in nature, because it is about an individual’s performance, feelings and thoughts about the system. User experience is dynamic, because it changes over time as the circumstances change…” All About UX

Five Principles of Web Design Applicable to Online Course Design

1. Design for the user
This seems obvious—design a course from the student’s perspective, yet it’s an atypical approach. When designing a web page for a course site, always ask ‘how will this look to the student’? Anyone involved in online course design needs to take an online course as a student. Completing at least one week of course work in a MOOC for example, gives one an entirely different perspective on course design—guaranteed. Design the course from the student’s perspective—always.

2. Consistency
For online course, consistency is probably the most under-utilized principle. Specifically in terms of how resources are titled, labeled and/or placed within the course site. I’ve taken many courses where the same resource, an article for instance, is referred to by two different names—in the syllabus it’s titled one way, and in the course site another. Confusing. Same goes for assignments, calling an assignment by slightly different names, even by one word suggests there are two assignments, not one. Another, posting the same document in two different locations within the site suggests there are two different documents. The time students spend searching, checking, comparing etc. is valuable learning time that is spent on logistics. Consistency is key.

3. White Space
Effective use of white space emphasizes key concepts, improves comprehension (up to 20%) and reduces cognitive overload (Lin, 2004). White space is the part of a web page that is left blank or unmarked. It’s the (white) space between columns, text, images, and margins on the page. This space provides visual relief to the reader and improves readability. Avoid using big blocks of text. Break it up with a graphic, or block of white space or increased line space. See examples below.

Example of text with little white space.
Same text as above but with increased line spacing. Effective use of white space improves readability.

4. Simplicity
In keeping with the idea of white space is simplicity. A cluttered page with three or more colors of font, sizes of font and images placed sporadically throughout that are of different type and size creates a chaotic-looking virtual classroom. It’s far easier to study and focus on learning in a physical classroom that is organized with minimal distractions. The same goes for an online classroom. Keep it simple, two colors of font, same size and style throughout, organized and consistent pages creates a Zen-like classroom where students can focus on course content and application of concepts. Learning is enhanced greatly.

“The way information is organized and presented to students affects not only the usability of information, but the usability of the course itself” (Young, 2014)

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Tabs grouped by category (Coursera)

5. Use Tabs Effectively
Imagine opening a file drawer that is full of file folders with inaccurate or missing labels. The same principles of file labels apply to web sites except rather than alphabetized listing, it’s an order that makes sense to the student. For example the ‘start here’ tab should be at the top of the menu not third or fourth down the list (which happens more often than you would think). Tabs should be two words (max 3 words), and with descriptive language, ‘Start Here’, ‘Week One, or ‘Student Support’ for example.  Use sub-tabs if possible, and if not group tabs into categories (screenshot right). Also avoid CAP LETTERS for titles of tabs. CAPITAL LETTERS can appear loud and abrasive on a website (there are exceptions as the screenshot above right demonstrates).

Developing an online course is a multidimensional process. Usability is one dimension often neglected; understandably so given that most educators approach online course design with little expertise in web design. Yet a little goes a long way—by implementing just the basic web design principles, educators can create an intuitive learning path that gives students the boost they need to invest more time in learning, not searching.


Five Alternatives to the Talking Head Video for MOOCs & Online Courses

VideoCameraCircleMost xMOOCs, and some for-credit online courses rely heavily upon what many refer to as the ‘talking head’ video format. The ‘talking head’ is usually the subject-matter expert delivering a lecture in his or her area of expertise. There’s great value in this format when used strategically and sparingly. Yet the effectiveness of lecture videos as a primary content source for online courses and MOOCs is difficult to determine. Thanks to a comprehensive study done via edX  we have data on student engagement patterns with videos specific to MOOCs to draw upon (Guo, Kim & Rubin, 2014). Key findings include:

  • The optimal video length is six minutes or shorter
  • Videos produced with a more personal feel could be more engaging than high-fidelity studio recordings
  • Khan-style tablet drawing tutorials (screencasts) are more engaging than PowerPoint slides

Video Viewing Patterns: A Non-MOOC Perspective
There is also data on student video engagement in non-MOOC courses to consider. The School of Continuing Education at Columbia University examined video viewing patterns of students using analytics from their video hosting platform and qualitative data from student interviews (Hibbert, 2014). Results were similar to Guo’s.  A significant takeaway from this study—videos are an excellent format in online courses to establish instructor presence; supporting a sense of connectedness for students.

One of the benefits video can offer is creating faculty presence in an online environment. In the interviews, students cited faculty presence as a key factor related to their engagement and perceived learning from videos”

Alternatives to Talking Heads
The focus of this post is on alternatives to the talking head. I chose this topic because the majority of xMOOCs I’ve experienced over the last two years do not reflect good practices for educational videos described in the latest research. Most xMOOCs rely upon the lecture video format, and though they have their place, there are several unique and creative format options that I want to share with readers.

1. Podcasts. Podcasts are an excellent option for several reasons: 1) smaller file size for easier download, 2) the format uses less bandwidth when streaming and, 3) is a portable file format—allowing students to listen on the go.

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Screenshot of podcast from “Globalizing Higher Education Research for the Knowledge Economy” on Coursera
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Screen shot of collection of podcast links to interviews  with various experts sharing their definition of global competency. From “Globalizing Higher Education”.   This approach provides multiple perspectives on a topic, prompting students to analyze the topic from different viewpoints.

2.  Interviews This format is a variation of the traditional video lecture, except an interviewer poses questions to the subject-matter expert. The interviewer can be a non-expert as was the case in the “Saving our Schools” MOOC I completed recently on edX. In this MOOC graduate students interviewed the expert (the faculty member). Alternatively, the interviewer can be the MOOC instructor interviewing an expert or guest with a unique perspective on the topic.

 Another variation I’ve seen used frequently is a live interview conducted via a video conferencing platform, e.g. Google Hangout, with an interviewer and one or more experts. Students are encouraged to use Twitter as a back channel for questions and discussion.

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Screenshot of lecture video using interview-format in “Saving our Schools”.  A graduate student interviews the faculty member.  I prefer the format when the instructor interviews a guest or other subject-matter expert on a topic; it’s more interesting.

3. Simulations. Simulations, when done well are an effective method for illustrating course concepts and engaging students. A simulation can serve not only as content, but also provide an excellent topic for a discussion forum, or problem solving exercise via a structured assignment.  According to the study at Columbia University, videos that link to an assignment or learning activity receive more views than those that don’t.

The simulation presented here, “A Day in the Life of a Rural Homemaker” from the MOOC “Subsistence Marketplaces” illustrates a typical day of a homemaker in rural India and includes an interactive component.

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Screen shot from simulation from “Subsistence Marketplace” MOOC on Coursera.

4. ScreencastsA screen cast is a digital recording of the user’s screen with voice-over narration. This format allows the instructor to include power point slides, images, or motion— hand drawing on white board for instance (similar to Khan academy videos). This format requires little technical expertise, and is frequently used by instructors who prefer to record their own video content. The outcome is more informal.  The research suggests students respond well to an informal approach.  

“The most engaging videos for me [are] when the professors use wit and humor.” student(Hibbert, 2014)

A professor at UBC records all of her own content videos (screencasts and lectures) for her MOOC “Useful Genetics” even through she has access to a recording studio. She outlines her reasons in her YouTube video “How I record MOOC lecture videos“. She also describes how she films the MOOC content.

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Screenshot of a screencast created by the instructor for the MOOC, “Drugs and the Brain” on Coursera. The professor incorporates motion in his screencast. The red arrow highlights areas of focus during the narration.
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Screencasts are useful for showing a selection of images. In this screencast the professor shares images of vintage maps, from “Configuring the World: A Critical Political Economy Approach”

5.  Informal end-of-week Recorded Discussions:  In this format the instructor(s) delivers an informal end-of-week recap of the previous week’s student interactions and feedback within the MOOC or online course. I’ve experienced instructor’s using this format in three or four MOOCs; I find it effective in demonstrating the instructor’s presence, commitment and interest in the course. He or she will typically share highlights from the discussion forums, address frequently asked student questions, and encourage participation for the upcoming week.

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Screenshot features instructor in a weekly response video from “Configuring the World” MOOC on Coursera

There are other formats to the five presented here. One is not using any video content produced by the institution or instructor. Instead, content sources might include YouTube, TedTalks or even students. This approach was used in a Coursera MOOC “E-Learning and Digital Cultures”. The approach was quite controversial as described by one of the course creators in eLearn Magazine.  However, any format can be effective with a carefully planned instructional strategy that aligns with the learning outcomes and expectations for the course.