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Tips (and gripes) on using video in learning

Video learning came to mind as I was thinking about how e-books and digital textbooks don’t have to just be a text-dump copy of the paper book. Since the digital format of an e-book allows for interactive elements, video, and other digital assets to aid in comprehension, why wouldn’t we take advantage of the technology? A few months ago, I worked on a project that was merely a proof-of-concept for myself for creating a pdf e-book with embedded video. Through my experience with that, and related academic study, I have collected some thoughts on how to best do video for learning.

In the mainstream, there are a ton of do it yourself (DIY) and self-help videos on the internet that will show you how to fix or make just about anything. For example, if you had never fixed a flat tire on your bicycle before, you could grab a patch kit and read the instructions. But why not access the collective knowledge of the internet? Go to YouTube, and… 380,000 results later(!) you know how to fix a bike tire.

Video instruction is very valuable for something like fixing a tire on your bike. Through visual instruction, psychomotor skills are easily transmitted through video. Video lectures are a more focused learning experience than the traditional study of a textbook. The learner can see how it works, and can listen to narration guiding them through it. Many of us have had very good experiences with video instruction.

However, there really are 380,000 YouTube results for “how to repair a bike tube”. This is a ridiculous number. What this indicates is that there are more people interested in making videos than there are people watching them. We only need one! Or realistically, maybe a couple dozen to account for different kinds of bikes, but even then, the other 379,976 of them are not really needed. Lesson one: why reinvent the wheel?

there are more people interested in making videos than there are people watching them.

Reading is one of the fastest ways of receiving information. For another example, perhaps I’ve got a halogen houselamp with a burned-out bulb. I want to take the old bulb to the store in order to buy the correct replacement. Do I unscrew the old bulb (it seems stuck) or do I push-and-turn? Back to the internet, where the first three hits are helpful people that will show me with video! But I don’t need to waste time watching video to answer what really doesn’t need video to explain in the first place. All I need is someone to say, “push the bulb in, and turn counter-clockwise.” That’s all. Lesson two: Don’t use video when simple words will suffice. Words are always faster.

Which brings me to the next point, that of video length. If there is only a simple task to accomplish, there’s nothing worse than having to sit through a 15 minute video. If I’m reading written information that I am already partly familiar with, it is easy to skim through. But unless the video software has a transcript or bookmarking feature, there’s no easy way to fast-forward without potentially missing out on the information you are looking for. Lesson three: keep it as short and concise as possible. It’s important that videos exclusively target what the student needs to learn. If I load a YouTube video and the narrator says enthusiastically, “Hi there! My name is Bill, and today, I’m going to show you how to change a lightbulb. But before we get started, I’ll first show you what tools we are going to need in order to…”  *click. That was me, quitting the video. My life’s too short. If you want to go into detail, do a quick overview first, then go back and get into the fine details and troubleshooting tips.

What about TED talks? These are very informative, and run upwards of fifteen to twenty minutes. And we all like watching them, right? Well, yes, we do. Because they are entertaining. TED makes sure that the presenter is highly prepared, and that the topic is concise, interesting, and entertaining. Keep in mind however that simply presenting information in a stimulating and interesting digital video format will not automatically lead to in-depth learning. Lesson four: if we have lots of information to cover in one video, inspiration and enthusiasm won’t fix everything, but it helps. I’m not a big fan of the term, “edutainment”, but there’s a nugget of truth to it when it comes to video instruction.

We know that video isn’t the best method for instruction in every case. Some other options instead? Written word, flow charts, tables, infographics, transcripts, or screenshots. Save the real-time audio and video instruction for when it’s most useful. There’s no denying the amazing power of showing a complicated, visual task with video. Just don’t get so enamoured with it that you use it for everything.

Postscript: I have spoken to a number of friends and colleagues about this topic, and I would like to disclose that I may be a bit of a grumpy-britches when it comes to video. There are many people who like to learn via the slower pace of a video instruction. They like the teacher to take the time to establish a rapport instead of going straight to the action. And if they are presented with the option of reading instructions, or watching a video, they will choose the video. However, I hope that what I’m saying makes sense, and that perhaps as educators, we can find the best ways to make use of video instruction in the future.

Brecht, H. D., & Ogilby, S. M. (2008). Enabling a Comprehensive Teaching Strategy: Video Lectures. Journal of Information Technology Education, 7, IIP71–IIP86.

Karppinen, P. (2005). Meaningful Learning with Digital and Online Videos: Theoretical Perspectives. AACE Journal, 13(3), 233–250.