Videos are the predominant modality of teaching in this new wave of online education. For humanities courses in particular, the bare minimum advancement is that videos digitize the traditional course lecture, allowing students to learn at their own pace, anytime and anywhere. More complex videos heighten production quality, especially when the lecturer is on-camera, and add graphical enhancements to visualize concepts such as the MOOC that Stanford Graduate School of Business offered in October 2013.1

For humanities courses, the idea is that graphical representations of topics can help learners to better internalize and remember concepts; that showing the instructor lecturing builds an emotional connection between students and instructor, thereby enhancing the learning experience.

But these are assumptions of which I have yet to be convinced.2

My experience dabbling in online courses (at least, the ones I’m not making) has been that taking one is generally a hassle and quite time-consuming. I have to find a quiet place, plug in my headphones so as not to disturb those nearby with professorial lecturing, and patiently use both eyes and ears, rendering me largely motionless and usually bored. Sure, I can speed up the videos at 1.5x or 2x, and I can rewind and replay parts that I don’t understand. But I am still constrained to the pace of the video. The question is: what is the quickest, most efficient way to learn? Surely not videos.

Here’s my two cents: videos have become the predominant modality simply because they remove responsibility from the learner. All a student has to do is sit back, relax, and pay attention. This does not translate into more efficient learning.

I love NPR. I can learn while I’m brushing my teeth or on-the-go. I love reading; I can skim parts I’m already familiar with or that don’t interest me, or carefully re-read parts I want to think about in more depth. I don’t have either of these flexibilities with videos. Oftentimes, no clear benefit to a video modality surfaces, especially when all I see is the lecturer. But I must continue to glue my eyes to the screen so as not to miss something (e.g., a chart or diagram pops up).

I’ve seen research in support of using the best modality for particular content rather than choosing modalities based on students’ preferred learning styles,3 and while videos have their role, I would gravitate toward text as a predominant modality with visuals and videos strategically embedded where they would truly supplement the learning. I love how The New York Times does some of its articles; check out A Game of Shark and Minnow and Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

For online mathematics courses, videos are a superior modality in many ways. As math is largely a language, students learn best by watching and hearing symbols and equations as they’re written. Videos speed up instructors’ writing and save students significant amounts of time.
In a talk Coursera founder Andrew Ng made at Stanford on January 12, 2014, Ng said that Coursera put 20,000 students in a course where the professor was included in the lower right corner of each video, and 20,000 students in the same course but without the professor. The effect on learning outcomes was indiscernible, but in feedback students stated they preferred to see the professor. However, this may be true if other visuals are largely static, as the lecture in this study seemed to be.
Determining this “best modality” is where an instructional designer fits in.


One thought on “Alternative Predominant Modalities to Videos in Humanities Courses

  1. I love your ideas, because they resonate more with my learning style — I need some dynamic interaction with the instructor while viewing visuals, like videos (not much different from making side comments to fellow viewers while watching movies — perhaps annoying to others, but engaging to me, thus enhancing learning.).

    My sense is that online learning will become more necessary as older people like me have to juggle work, family, and personal time with self-improvement (e.g., higher education), when learning efficiency is essential in the context of limited personal resources (time, energy, money). Bottom line for optimal learning for me: engagement – that simultaneous connection with the material and teacher that captures my attention, stimulates my mind, involves my body to some extent, and fires up some internal longing for meaning and purpose. I’m intrigued with what ideas you can come up next. Thank you for sharing your 2 cents.

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