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What Makes an Online Instructional Video Compelling?

blendedlearning's picture

This question was a hot topic at last year's Blended Learning Conference, which featured several faculty presentations about their experiments and experiences with blended learning. In particular, faculty debated the importance of using videos that they created themselves and/or in which they were visible speaking.

In a recent article in the Educause Review, Melanie Hibbert, a media producer at Columbia University's School for Continuing Education and a doctoral candidate at Columbia's Teachers College shares findings from a internal study that the former conducted in order to answer this question. This study combined media analytics -- analysis of the viewing data collected by the school's video-hosting platform -- and follow-up interviews with 10 students. Although the courses analyzed were online, and the students were master's level students, their findings correlate with some of the feedback we've received from undergraduate students in blended liberal arts college courses and from our own internal analysis of viewing data at Bryn Mawr College.

Some of the findings are predictable. For example, few professors will be surprised by the fact that both data patterns and student feedback show preference for shorter videos, that break content from a typical lecture into shorter, more focused and targeted chunks. As one anonymous respondent to a survey in a Bryn Mawr course put it, "please -- nothing over 15 minutes!"

But some of Columbia's findings were more surprising. Although video-sharing platforms have scrambled to deliver mobile and tablet compatibility, over 90% of viewing was done on computers and viewers typically streamed videos, rather than downloading them. Both patterns suggest that students are sitting down to watch these videos at a desk or in a library rather than downloading them to watch while commuting, exercising, etc. And indeed the students interviewed confirmed that they tended to approach the videos add they would a lecture, sitting down at a dedicated time and place to watch them.

But Columbia's most important finding is that the content of a video and how a video is integrated into the course are the key factors making it compelling to watch. The most watched videos -- which had 3-5 times as many "views" as there were students enrolled in the class --  shared several common features:

  • The videos were integral to an assignment or to success in the course in some way -- for example, an exemplar of a type of video or presentation that students were expected to produce or a resource students were expected to comment on in weekly discussion post
  • The video format captured something that text or image resources could not

In interviews, students reiterated the importance of the latter point, and their comments echo feedback we've received from Bryn Mawr students. While the interviewed students felt seeing the faculty member speaking in a conversational style helped make a video engaging -- particularly if he or she used humor or anecdotes to convey information -- if the video did not contain audiovisual elements that could not be captured in textual form, they could simply read a transcript (which two in fact would have preferred). Similarly, while the students appreciated good production values, production values were less important than the content and purpose of the videos.