January 13, 2014

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 (sample below).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 in case a visual shows up that is worthwhile.

While I’ve seen research in support of using the best modality for particular content,3 I would be very interested to read any research on the impact of various visuals of humanities concepts and the presence of the lecturer in videos on learning outcomes. While videos have their role, I would gravitate toward text as a predominant modality, with soundless visuals (either static or animated) embedded for concepts that warrant them, and an optional downloadable mp3 version of the text with bookmarks where visuals are placed (so that later, students can forward to these points in the mp3 and view the visuals while listening).

Stay tuned for a sample lesson illustrating these ideas.

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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.

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