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Why videos?

In the Cathy Davidson “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC, I’m really intrigued by her decision (or maybe Coursera’s decision?) to have so much of the content delivered by means of video. Particularly I’m intrigued (or even concerned) by the use of video that takes so little advantage of the affordances of the video medium.

In every one of the videos (all of which are much longer than I would recommend for any online video) I’ve found myself wondering “why does this need to be a video? Why not just text?”

There are so many great examples of educational video which uses what video can do. From the RSA Animate work, to the California Academy of Sciences series on biodiversity (for example). Or of course Khan Academy in general and Smarthistory in particular.

We know so many great ways to make educational video, and we already have text (even with illustrations). Why make videos that just translate text (or even lectures) into video?

I’ve written about this before. And I’m far from the only one. So I’m wondering what was the thinking behind doing things in the Coursera course the way that (at least so far) they’re being done.

In my own course (see particularly the mini-lectures)–not a MOOC, since it was far from massive, but generally open and certainly online, that I taught twice, 3 and 4 years ago, I thought about this a lot and chose to have text with hyperlinks and illustration (and broken down into much smaller pieces, and more readable), rather than me talking to the camera. And we (as a class) discussed that choice and discussed what video can and can’t do (as well as voicethread, discussion forums, audiobooks, traditional textbooks, etc). (And of course, the class used plenty of video, when that was appropriate. Just not video of me talking to the camera).

I really wonder what are the advantages (or at least differences) in having mini-lectures that are like mine (in the “Introductions and Foundations” section or “What is Learning and What is Literature” or any of the others), vs. having me say that same information (maybe with pictures on the side or subtitles) to the camera from a couch with a cup of coffee in my hand.


  1. There are two points I would like to add to Beth Harris comment.
    First – the question of “communication bandwidth”. According to my experiences of meetings, TV dialogues, phone calls/radio and chats; the amount of information and understanding is rapidly decreasing between these channels. E.g. normal meetings may be held using TV but if you are going to discuss personal matters you have to do it IRL.
    Important is also how well you already know each other. If you are listening to a person via radio, a person you have met and know quite well that pre-knowledge will allow you to create a much richer picture of that person.
    Second – why disqualify the use of any of these ways of communication? It is more a matter of how to use the right ones in the right way. If a face appears on the screen we are intended to look at it but if we want to tell our audience something it might be the best method to get attention and focus to get the message through. On the other hand if we want the audience to focus upon Parthenon we should preferably not distract them by showing a face.
    Of course it is easier to produce a lecture if you exclude the use of some possibilities instead of using all available methods. However in the long run we have to learn how to play using all the keys on our keyboard.

  2. Cathy, since you’ve been so kind as to share all the behind-the-scenes for this MOOC, I thought I would (gently, I hope) point out that these two quotes convey fairly different narratives about the course:

    “We were literally presented with a laptop with a webcam and prescriptions for how to do a Coursera course.”

    “To be fair, we were given the option of studio-shot professional videos with teleprompter… Those were the choices: DIY or do it in their studio, with their methods. So we went with DIY.”

    One says, “Hey, we’re making the best of it!” The other involves a more intentional choice to see what one could do with DIY approaches. I think I actually prefer the second narrative, as it’s more consistent with your MOOC-as-experiment approach.

  3. This discussion reminds me of Randy Bass’ saying (or distillation of someone else’s saying) about being “high tech with high touch.” We’re aiming to personalize the online experience as much as possible through as many possible modes. If I had had the option to make my own iMovies when doing online teaching back in 2002, it would have reduced the anxiety some of my “students” (who were actually professors in an online prof dev program) felt when reading the instructions/discussion prompts. The immediacy of the medium to communicate goals, illustrate concepts (with faces, images, charts, blackboard, etc.) proves useful in many contexts and appeals to a wide-variety of users.

    In reading Joe’s most recent response, I’m wondering how video could serve as an illustration of a course syllabus, an immersive syllabus combined with an interactive timeline (tiki-toki, simile) that shows personality of professor in combination with the content of the course. That might be one good use of video embedded in another technology that could to engage students in video/interaction at the onset of the course (and provide models to other instructors to animate syllabi or course content in similar ways).

    But of course this technology makes me think of when, where, and if these questions are considered in the traditional classroom? If not, why not? These are the questions that I love to see emerge from the use of technology on the massive scale.

  4. Thought I would chime in – I’m not sure we need a face on a camera to have a sense of the personality of the teacher and a sense of teacher presence (both of which I agree are important). After all – think about radio! Don’t you feel close to the people who host your favorite radio programs?

    Faces can be distracting – that’s the reason Steven Zucker and I don’t appear on our art history videos. Why look at us when you can look at the Parthenon! And of course there are challenges that are different here for different disciplines.

    At this point we’ve all heard the story of how motion pictures started by simply filming stage performances. When we have a new medium – it can be unclear what to do with it aside from replicating the old medium. But I do think we are charged – as educators – with thinking this through, as we are doing on this blog – and experimenting with new forms and looking at learning analytics to guide us. After all MOOCs are massive, and have massive data…

  5. For me this is a very important discussion as my focus is upon the student’s learning process and how this is facilitated. After a long career as management consultant, teacher and researcher I am now retired and spending a lot of my time taking online courses.

    Two very good online courses for me have been “Fictions of Relationship by Arnold Weinstein” and The “Art of Reading” by Timothy Spurgin. Very good teaching and I learnt a lot but the design of the presentations surprised me because it was nothing more than plain lecturing. No multimedia was used at all.

    Cathy Davidson is really one step forward by using text in parallel with her own appearance. It is fine but much more might be done to a next version of the course.

    But when I watched “Soul Beliefs” by Daniel Ogilvie I started to look upon these presentations as art. He has a very personal style and when he discussed ritual dancing he made an unforgettable impression by playing music and performing a short dance. This form of teaching reaches behind the intellectual and conscious level. It is going deeper.

    These professors are personalities that create contact with the students. I feel I already “know” Cathy Davidson. Her actions and expressions communicate messages and make impressions on me that the right-hand black board does not. But it is a good complement.

    “Just not video of me talking to the camera” is to deny us from using the personalities of these artistic professors to support the student’s learnings process at all levels. Look upon them as education artists and let them appear and act as other artists. Let the design be influenced by MTV without going that far.

  6. So great to have all these responses! As Cathy says, these are all subjects that are rich ground for further conversation! I’ve got a few further thoughts myself, so I might as well keep the conversation going!

    I do agree that a “talking to the camera” video can be very useful for establishing teacher presence–for letting students “get to know” the professor in a way that is more personable and friendly and approachable than text. Cathy does a really excellent job of that in all of her videos in the course. In most online courses I’ve taught or collaborated on, I either produce or ask the instructor to produce some kind of brief introductory video of just that type.

    I think what I was trying to get at with my initial post is an effort to push towards using “net-native” types of productions. An introductory video that shows the face (and the office, field, lab, home, yard, something like that) of the professor helps to embody that professor and build the connection and rapport that is sometimes missing in online communication. It’s also a kind of attempt to reproduce or translate that face-to-face personal connection into another medium. But I also like to experiment with multiple different methods of establishing that kind of connection through media that can exist better online than in person. Not just trying to recreate the in-person classroom experience, but trying to show different dimensions, through creative work that can be posted, hyperlinks to other projects, connections to other classes and student work–ways to establish and strengthen teacher presence that are different from and (even) richer than any talking to the camera video can present. An introductory video is one part of the richer picture of a professor’s digital identity.

    But that’s just for introductory material. Where I’m also curious is to find net-native ways (rather than translations of physical-space-native ways) to communicate content.

    When creating video for communicating content online, I’m trying to figure ways to use images, animation, sound, live video, interactivity, links, OERs, that video can do better than face-to-face interaction. If we’re going to do video, it’s terribly exciting to think about what we can do with it that is creation rather than imitation. That can be done in video and not in physical space. (There used to be–maybe still is?–a great Second Life group called “Not Possible in Real Life.”)

    I’m especially intrigued by the very successful and very low-tech videos that are being made by Sal Khan and others at khanacademy.org…and especially intrigued and impressed by my wife Beth Harris’ videos (made with her colleague Steven Zucker) at smarthistory.org. Because I have seen Beth and Steven’s progress and process from their earliest efforts, I know that the toughest issues with video are not about cost of production or time or professional quality, but about thinking about the best ways to present content. This is what I’m working on with colleagues Lisa Brundage and Kelly O’Donnell in creating videos for our “Science Forward” program. Thinking about the teaching and what video can do for teaching is tough…but so rewarding!

    I really want to share some examples, and I hope that people will actually view these and (maybe? I hope?) share some more conversation about them.

    Two smarthistory videos:

    Why Look at Art?

    The Standard of Ur

    And one medical science video

    Meet the Heart

    These are not made with a production team or specialized resources (basically they’re made with GarageBand, simple tablets, ScreenFlow, and images either shot with simple consumer cameras or taken from openly shared and shareable resources like wikipedia). (In fact, it might even be a misnomer to call them “videos”). But they get thousands and thousands of unique visitors every month, and are used in classes at all levels and all over the world, as well as by independent learners.

    (They’re also open and shareable–Creative Commons Licensed–but the whole open vs “open” discussion I think is a separate one to be had later).

    In fact I’d love to share a lot more examples, and maybe others will post some? But I’m going to stop there. Again, thanks so much to Cathy and to everyone taking part.

    And I also, truly, can’t wait to discuss this further. We’re just still in such early days (depending how you measure) and it’s so much fun to try and see what we will learn.

  7. To be fair, we were given the option of studio-shot professional videos with teleprompter but in later videos there are interviews, we move around, I wanted to show my cue card (“there is always someone behind the camera”) and those were the choices: DIY or do it in their studio, with their methods. So we went with DIY . . . and since I’m in it to learn a lot, boy did I ever succeed! But definitely watch the videos at 1.75. Please. Pretty please. I love this conversation. Many thanks. And I have to say for all my previous cynicism about Coursera, they are learning, we are talking, they are so engaged by the incredible level of conversation in the Forums in the course, and we are all in awe at the level of the commentary, debate, ideas, resources, sharing, caring, and desire for change. It’s one of the most amazing experiences of my life and, oh oh, I wish I didn’t have to look at me zombie green and askance again next Sunday night! The price we pay for pedagogy . . . I can’t wait for further conversations with you, Joseph, on all these issues. I truly can’t wait!

  8. You are right, Joseph, that there are way more engaging ways to use video. But, without going down the road towards edutainment, I have found Cathy’s videos excellent. The dynamic chalkboard to the left of the screen is enough to keep me engaged in what you describe as long videos.

    I think this thread (and the shock that Cathy has to use a webcam and lynda.com training) perhaps point to the issue with MOOCs – that our institutions have not yet figured out exactly how to monetize them. Without that clarity, then, is is natural that a faculty member would left to be resourceful.

    Though difficult for Cathy, I appreciate that #FutureEd was done in that low budget kind of way. Because then she, and we together, can model a true #FutureEd.

  9. …besides, Coursera’s ‘killer app’ is the speed control. ramp it up to 2.0x and enjoy. 😉

  10. Interesting work in the past on online learning and some recent studies of MOOCs have shown the importance of a sense of teacher ‘presence’.

    It’s similar in some ways, perhaps, to lecture recordings where often we wonder what is the point of the little video window of the lecturer when we’ve got audio and slides nicely in sync. Evaluations of student preferences though shows even here the presence of the video gives a ‘human touch’ and a sense of the recording of an event/a happening and hence a possibility of being part of something rather than just absorbing content.

    Of course we know, as you imply, that the pedagogical affordances of the video medium would suggest alternatives are better, but when we’re dealing with real students learning in a variety of contexts and situations, it seems that simple videos showing what the teacher is like, have an impact on levels of interest in the other parts of the course.

    I also wonder if our (ie educational/technology specialists) sense of what are good production values, really matters terribly much, particularly if this ‘presence’ and teacher identity are what is being looked for. An ‘amateurish’ video is far more human after all (as long as it is not unbearably bad – and you haven’t crossed that line, Cathy!) and indeed in the age of youtube, students are a lot more forgiving if there’s a sense of immediacy.

  11. FWIW, there’s an icon where the videos are placed that will take you to the cue cards used in the video, so you can skip the video and just read the text.

  12. Cathy, I’m a little surprised that, given all the MOOCs coming out of Duke, that you weren’t given a videographer and a high-end camera instead of a laptop and webcam. That’s standard practice for MOOCs at Vanderbilt. However, VU isn’t making as many MOOCs as Duke–perhaps that’s the difference.

  13. Thanks, Cathy! I appreciate the response. It’s interesting to see the different models arise and I’m especially impressed that you went ahead and tried Coursera’s model to see things from outside your own (and my) comfort zone.

    As we all (I’m currently working with a team here at CUNY to make some science videos) work to see the best uses of each medium (and that “best” will of course be different for different students), it’s the experiments that are likely to provide the most progress. Maybe Coursera, too, will learn from this.

  14. Here’s the url to my Hybrid Pedagogy blog where I talk extensively about how foolish it feels to lecture into a video camera (and that’s nothing to having to watch myself in zombie light, not making eye contact with the webcam, each and every week to prepare for the week’s “class of 16,000 teachers”): http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/10-things-learned-from-making-a-meta-mooc/ Pretty comical! I’m about to blog about this and will link back to your blog. Thanks for giving me this opportunity. I think the reason for video is one word: YouTube. Okay, maybe that’s two?! Actually, that’s where I will begin my blog, and I’ll track back to yours. Thanks again!

  15. We were literally presented with a laptop with a webcam and prescriptions for how to do a Coursera course. Not my preferred medium at all–but apparently it is from 16,000+. The reason I began by talking about it being like Wayne’s World (circa 1992) is because it is entirely amateur and amateurish. I’m a prof, not an actor, and my colleague at HASTAC learned how to shoot, quite literally, from lynda.com. What’s the alternative? In this method, there is a rumor that Harvard’s EdX will have Matt Damon doing videos in the future. Udacity has professional script writers and trains the people who make the videos. I find the form almost unbearable to watch, even by those who do it well–and I’m quite a trained, polished public speaker who can address 6000 people and hold an audience. But video? it is its own genre, with its own requirements, and, even watching a lot of YouTube How To videos, certainly didn’t make me a pro. I did this as an experiment and to see if we could use this format and platform to galvanize conversations worldwide. That’s happening. To my mind, the videos themselves are by far the least interesting part of the whole #FutureEd thing. That said, I’m astonished at how much many people are enjoying them. Would I do it entirely differently if I did it again? You bet! But this was 40 hours a week for nine months to do all the production and preparation and editing and, although I’m learning a lot and enjoying it hugely, I have other experiments to try in the future! Thanks so much for this great forum. The point is the conversation. The form–as I’ve written in many places, inc this month’s Public Culture–is archaic, doc on the laptop version of Sage on the Stage. My own classroom teaching is all peer to peer with students generating the syllabus and even peer grading their projects together.

  16. Somewhat related: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the pedagogical value of the digitized slide, as I’ve been browsing Slideshare in preparation for my teaching. When they added text and photography slides and split-screens to the State of the Union this week, I pooh-pooh’ed it at first, but now it’s what I remember most of that speech. And even Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart add a lot to their delivery with the addition of satirical images and titles, or even bullet points a la PowerPoint (I’m thinking of Colbert’s “the Word” segments here).

    I wonder if this kind of enhanced delivery would help reinforce Professor Davidson’s content. It sounds from the comments here that Vahid felt seeing her introduce herself to all the students was important, and I can see how that might be useful, though I’d question why we actually have to see the instructor–why their body being on camera matters so much. So okay, if that’s important to some, then fine–but it would be great to see the MOOC folks take greater advantage of all the possibilities out there. I mean, if the White House media team is already creating enhanced video, then I think it’s gone from being a forward-thinking idea to status quo, making this MOOC seem like even more of a throwback.

  17. I’m with you on this, Joseph. I think there’s value in some “talking head” videos, particularly at the beginning of the course to help establish instructor presence. But if you’re going to use video, you need to make good use of the visual component of video. The RSA Animate videos are great examples of this–the visuals complement and enhance the audio. A good PowerPoint presentation can (but often doesn’t) do this, but video presents other options, as you note.

    The good news is that all the attention paid to lecture videos in MOOCs is starting to help more faculty think about the visuals they use when they teach, especially in MOOCs but also in other settings. So keep pointing this out! It will encourage others to use stronger visuals.

  18. I will have to get back to you on those videos, i can’t watch them from my office (due to bandwidth retraints and control). Thanks for linking them, as i am looking for good examples of educational videos (that do go beyond the sage on the stage).

  19. Fair enough! We don’t all have to agree.

    I wonder what you think of the other video examples I linked in the post? To me, those are excellent videos (and I’m quite intentionally working not to link to any that I’ve made myself), and good examples of how video can succeed well. And (with some exceptions) they are neither high-tech nor difficult to create (difficult in terms of conception and content, but not in terms of mechanics).

    Anyway, I really appreciate your input. When asking the questions, I’m seriously asking. There’s plenty to discuss here.

  20. I don’t agree. Especially in Week 1, we 14000 from all over the world get to meet the teacher, see what she’s like. Video is way more engaging that text. Text, BTW can be just as drab as the videos you describe.

    Personally, i think that this type of video should be done with a great looking powerpoint that highlights and illustrates the topics covered. I’m positive that as the tech evolves and becomes easier to use, videos will turn into powerful multimedia/transmedia contents. But right now, creating 1 hour show that you would see on the history channel or some such is just too time consuming and expensive.

    In any case, in week 1, i was quite satisfied by the effort that was put on integrating contents by the side of Cathy talking. It felt always pertinent and assisted in following what was said, IMHO.

  21. Thanks for the response, Vahid! I guess I should be more clear. I have nothing at all against videos. I just think that videos should take advantage of what videos can offer. A person sitting on a couch speaking is not (to me) demonstrably superior to that same content in text. It takes longer to listen than to read, and the visual of the person sitting there adds little. Video is absolutely great when it adds something. In this case, I don’t see what was added.

  22. It’s not clear to me what you have against videos. I certainly appreciate a variety of mediums when we are dealing with content delivery, but video is not a bad choice per se (unless you’re faced with dismal internet connection, but Coursera is nice enough to allow people to download the videos).

    I would expect that, in the next few week, we’ll be treated to a variety of media, but quite frankly i felt that Cathy was engaging, speaking in a very comprehensible manner, and trying to be synthetic enough. Why would she NOT do that?

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