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.

References:

MOOC Design Tips: Maximizing the Value of Video Lectures

“Which kinds of videos lead to the best student learning outcomes in a MOOC?”
How Video Production Affects Student Engagement: An Empirical Study of MOOC Videos (Guo, Kim & Rubin, 2014)

Reel of FilmAn excellent question that design teams and instructors of MOOCs want to know—which kinds of videos lead to the best student learning outcomes in a MOOC?  According to a recent study conducted by researchers for the edX MOOC platform, this was the most pressing question posed by the course design teams working with its partner institutions. Given that most MOOCs offered through higher education institutions platforms such as edX, iVersity, or Coursera use video lectures as the primary content delivery source, it is a critical question that preoccupies many if not most MOOC instructional design teams. Adding to this need-to-know element is the fact that video production is most often the highest cost associated with MOOC production. MOOC video production can range from a few hundred dollars and run up to the thousands. This post suggests how institution can use resources effectively in the video production process with the primary goal of supporting students’ learning outcomes.

The report released by edX last week gives design teams some concrete data to examine. I’ve emphasized below the recommendations and practical application points from the paper for readers who might be part of a design team for MOOC, online course, or for those with an interest in video production for instructional videos.  There are limitations to the study outlined in the paper, though the depth of the analysis does provide data worthy of consideration. 

The report, the first of its kind according to the authors Guo, Kim & Rubin, analyzes students’ engagement* with lecture videos gathered from data extracted from over 6.9 million video watching sessions across four edX courses.  *Student engagement is defined in the study by:

  1. Engagement time: the length of time that a student spends of a video. This is the same metric used by YouTube. Though researchers acknowledged the limitation of engagement assessed from this one-dimensional perspective.
  2. Question/Problem Attempt:  Almost one-third of the videos across the four courses featured an assessment problem directly following the video, usually a multiple-choice question designed to check a student’s understanding of the video’s contents. “We record whether a student attempted the follow-up problem within 30 minutes after watching a video.”

Videos Types for MOOCs
Lectures are divided into two primary types for the study, [which mirrors most MOOCs]: 1) lecture videos for content delivery—presented via an instructor/professor (‘talking head’ is the term used in the paper), and 2) a tutorial/demonstration, a step-by-step problem solving walk-through, common in computer science courses, courses featuring mathematical concepts or science courses featuring lab demonstrations.

Video Production Format
For analysis purposes, researchers coded the videos examined in study using six primary video production formats, which I’ve summarized below, along with production styles not mentioned in the study.

1) Lecture-Style Video Formats:

  • Instructor(s) with/without Presentation Slides: Features instructor(s) lecturing, with or without PowerPoint slide presentation slides inserted throughout with instructor ‘voice over’ while slide is displayed
  • Office Setting: close-up shots of the instructor filmed at his or her office, typically instructor speaks directly to camera
  • Classroom Setting: video captured from a live classroom lecture
  • Production Studio Setting: instructor recorded in a studio with no audience, typically speaking to the camera

2) Tutorial/Demonstration Video Formats:

  • Video Screencast: of the instructor demonstrating a concept, i.e. writing code in a text editor, or command-line prompt (in the case of computer science courses), using spreadsheet or document
  • Instructor Drawing Freehand on a Digital Tablet, using a software program, which is a style popularized by Khan Academy videos (click here to view an example)

Other Formats not mentioned in the study:

  • Instructor interviewing another expert or guest speaker
  • Instructor delivering lecture in another setting related to the course (though not always), for example an ecologist giving lecture at the beach, an art historian in a museum, etc.
  • Panel Discussion of experts on specific course-related topic

Which format to use? The primary factor that determines which format to use are the objectives of the MOOC or course, and the course content. The course design team typically selects the video formats during the course design phase when the instructional strategy is created, for example: the formats of the video are chosen, the content chosen for each, related student activities or assessments selected, etc.

The second factor determining which format to employ is the amount of resources (dollars) available for video production. This determines right off the bat which tool, program or hardware will be used for the video production. Important to note, the amount of resources invested in video production does not scale to how much students’ learn or to MOOC completion rates. For example, I completed a course on Canvas Network, Statistics in Education for Mere Mortals (my course review here). The course featured video lectures and tutorials, all created by the instructor using low-budget technology. Lectures appeared to be filmed on the instructor’s laptop using a web cam, (power point slides were added, so there was some editing). Each module featured a tutorial, a screen cast where the instructor demonstrated application of various formulas to a data set. I found the professor, Lloyd Rieber, encouraging and personable; he also delivered the content concisely in lecture videos and tutorials. Interestingly, the course completion rate was over 10%, higher than typical MOOC completion rates that are usually lower than 7%.

Key Findings of Study

  • Shorter videos are more engaging. Student engagement levels drop sharply after 6 minutes
  • Engagement patterns differ between the two video formats; engagement higher with the lecture style videos (‘talking head’) which researchers suggest is due to more “intimate and personal feel”
  • Several MOOC instructors interviewed for study felt more comfortable with the classroom lecture format, however this format did not translate well online, even with much editing in production studio
  • For tutorial/demonstrations videos, the Khan-style format where instructor draws on tablet and narrates, was found to engage students more effectively than screen casts. A contributing factor—instructors ability to situate themselves “on the same level” as student
  • Video producers and edX design teams determined that pre-production planning had the largest impact on the engagement effect of the videos. Researchers used a data set within the study to test this idea

Practical Recommendations for Course Design Teams

  1. Identify type and format for each video lecture using course objectives and module breakdown as a guide, and budget. Plan each lecture for the MOOC format and its potential students. Consider copyright terms for images used in videos and slides. Plan ahead by selecting appropriate images, free from copyright during the planning phase
  2. Invest in pre-production planning phase. Segment course content into chunks, using six-minutes per video as a guideline. Identify purpose for each video lecture, and key content points to deliver within each.  Write script for each [lecture video format] and have instructor practice before filming—reduces filming and editing time

  3. For tutorial/demonstration videos introduce motion and continuous visual flow into tutorials, along with extemporaneous speaking so that students can follow along with the instructor’s thought process. Complete basic outline of video beforehand, not full script to be read word-for-word
  4. Provide more personal feel to videos. Try filming in an informal setting (such as the instructor’s  office) where he or she can make good eye contactit often costs less and might be more effective than a professional studio. Coach instructors to use humour, personal stories and convey enthusiasm where possible

Closing Thoughts
MOOCs are here to stay, which makes studies like this one valuable for helping educators be more effective through course design. This study brings us closer to finding the answer to the question which kinds of videos lead to the best student learning outcomes in a MOOC?  Yet it’s a start, there is still much more to be done in understanding how students learn in massive courses, and how institutions can be more effective with investment of its resources for increasing student learning outcomes.

Further Reading: