The role of multimedia in online learning. Hint: It’s not all videos!

How might we best leverage video to create an active learning experience? In this post, we combine our learning design experience and expertise with Creative Listening’s, a video production company with more than 12 years’ experience.

It’s not uncommon for clients to come to us with a series of videos that they want to turn into a learning experience. Whilst this can work out, thanks to some (expensive) video editing and structure imposed around the videos to turn what would otherwise be a very passive experience into an active one, it does feel akin to adding the windows to a house that hasn’t yet been built.

In this post, we’ll explore when and how to use video, ideal video length, alternatives to video, the learner’s environment and give you some tips on video content, scripts and briefs.

Video is just a small part of the learning experience

Ideally, decisions around when and how to include videos will be made at the course conceptualisation stage, as part of achieving clarity around the course aims and how these fit with the organisation’s wider aims, and once the overall course approach has been determined. The videos will then take further shape at the storyboarding stage.

Video is part of the learning experience rather than the whole event. It’s useful and often necessary to give yourself some creative constraints, asking yourself which videos are nice-to-haves and which are essential. You might want to go a step further and have a maximum number of videos and an idea of how to space these out across your course modules.

Regardless of the number of videos, keep in mind that video is a trigger for further learning rather than where the learning itself will necessarily take place. What surrounds the videos is as important if not more so than the video content itself as learners need the opportunity to take what they’ve acquired passively and apply it actively in some way.

“People often ‘think’ or ‘feel’ that they have learnt from video but this can be ‘illusory ‘ learning. The learner mistakes the feeling that they have learnt things for actual learning.”

[Clark: p122]

Some might see the answer to this as including in-video questions but these should be used sparingly and would be better geared towards prediction, personalisation and reflection over concept-checking. In-video questions shift the focus away from cognitive activity to behavioural activity, getting the learner to do stuff as the video is playing rather than taking in, processing and reflecting upon the information.

How long is too long?

In a recent survey by TikTok, around 50% of users said videos longer than a minute long were “stressful” and a third of users watched videos online at double speed. Short-form video is ubiquitous in our everyday lives and we can’t ignore how our consumption of bit-sized content impacts our ability to concentrate on video in a learning environment.

Educational video doesn’t need to be micro, but given that our working memory is only about 20 seconds long and we can only store a few things in our mind at a time, it’s best to keep video short. Otherwise, more work needs to be done to consolidate the learning. Shorter videos can be achieved by chunking longer ones into meaningful segments. What we mean by short is under six minutes but preferably shorter still.

Research shows that “learners drop out in large numbers at around six minutes and this drops dramatically down to 50% at 9-12 minutes.”

[Clark: p122]

Tips for video content

  1. When using video as part of a course, it’s vital to consider the desired outcome at the outset, i.e. deciding what the final aim and purpose of the video strand is, and then ensure those aims are contained in the original conception, ideation and scripting stages.
  2. Keep in mind that learning is feeling. Depending on your subject matter, video might be a good way of arousing an emotional response in learners. It can be impactful and motivational to include an introductory video of the subject matter expert associated with that particular course.  “Seeing a practising physicist, physician or business leader explain, with passion, the ‘why’ of a learning experience can get things off to a great start.” [Clark: p125]. 
  3. Future-proof your videos by ensuring that your participants are wearing clothing free of dates or other signs that might age the video such as face masks.
  4. Strive for representation across your videos in terms of race, age and gender balance. People will better relate to a learning experience if they can see themselves in it and will subsequently be better motivated and more receptive to learning!
  5. With the exception of language learning, text plus audio plus video on the screen can actually inhibit learning. Due to the limitations of our working memory, a single focus of attention is very important for conscious learning to take place. So, depending on the constraints you’re working under, it’s better to give learners the option to turn captions on or off, depending on their learning environment.
  6. As with audio plus text and its poor impact on cognitive bandwidth, the same is true of music. Two leading learning researchers, Roxana Morenos and Richard Mayer, tested whether adding auditory sounds improved or harmed learning and found that the learners with added music and sounds performed far worse than groups not receiving the music and sounds. So, use music sparingly at the beginning and end of a video if needed so as not to distract from the main video content.

Do you even really need video?

We often default to video without considering other, potentially better, forms of communicating information. If you’re adding video to add variety, there are cheaper and more effective ways to do it. Variety can come from other places such as the interactions in the experience, moments for peer learning, moments for reflection, and importantly, time to pause/do nothing and actually take in what’s being learned.

We shouldn’t discount the power of audio. It’s not only cheaper to produce, but more importantly it has a lower cognitive bandwidth. Learners’ hands and eyes are free to take notes so as to optimise retention. The brain is left freer to interpret the aural information and connect it to prior existing knowledge.

Have you thought about the learner’s environment?

Learners may encounter any number of obstacles to learning such as poor connectivity or lack of quiet space in which to study. This means that a lot of learners will need to view videos with captions turned on. We’ve already said that text plus audio can overburden so this is another argument for making your videos as concise as possible.

Tips for scripts and briefs

When putting a video brief together, it’s important to get the input of a producer or production company, as there are so many pitfalls to stumble into at this stage. Often making the video is the most exciting part of a course, and so naturally, everyone wants to get involved and be creative, however someone needs to manage expectations, be realistic about outcomes, and accurately match ambition to budget.

Keep in mind that each video should tell a story. Before writing a script or brief, ask yourself:

  • What’s the purpose of the video?
  • How do I want learners to feel?
  • What do I want learners to think?
  • What do I want learners to do/be able to do?

During writing/reviewing, ask yourself:

  • Am I engaging learners?

Decide whether a scripted or unscripted approach is best for the story you’re trying to tell and for the people participating in the videos. In the case of the former, opt for a scriptwriter and/or script editor where possible. This is a specialist skill!

If you’re going to spend lots of money on a video, then make the most of the visual elements.

Pay particular attention to the opening of each video. You could start with a question or a controversial statement. These will likely be more memorable than a paraphrasing of a learning objective.

Use calls to action, getting learners to do something in response to the video content and supplement this with opportunities for them to share their learnings.

Close your video with a summary of what’s been covered.

When reviewing video scripts, it’s good to take a hard edit to extraneous dialogue or content that doesn’t add anything extra to the aims of the videos. This can be budget effective in terms of being able to make more videos, but also frees time up on set for the Director and production team, so they can make more out of the key content during filming.

Creative Listening is a media production house with heart and ambition, specialising in audiovisual content (video, songs, animation and audio) for education and ELT publishing. 

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