Instructor videos in online courses – pros and cons

So week 1 of the Human MOOC required participants to do some reflections on the pros and cons of using instructor videos in online courses. We were also required to show competency in demonstrating “usage of [an] interactive educational tool to connect with learners”. One of the reasons I like (and am simultaneously terrified of) this MOOC is the choice of ‘stream’ of ‘garden’ path. The stream path offers set exercises to complete. The guidelines suggested using two tools – an audio tool called ‘voice thread’ and an ipad app called ‘FlipGrid’ where you can have collaborative discussions with short video clips.

The online courses I’m involved in are for participants in developing countries, so we have to be very conscious of bandwidth. Whilst some of our participants could have excellent broadband (and we know some have), many have poor or intermittent connections. In our last research writing course we had participants from Yemen, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan.

Fortunately, the ‘Garden’ path means being able to interpret the exercises using whatever tools we decide are appropriate. So I thought I would use the most low-bandwidth tool I could find. One tool that I have been meaning to properly trial is called ‘Tricider’. This allows people to collaborate and argue/prioritise about different ideas. So I thought this might be an interesting platform to collaboratively ‘reflect’ on the pros and cons of instructor videos.

Firstly, I set up a free Tricider page, set a question and added some basic pro/cons ideas.  I then sent out an invite on the #HumanMOOC hashtag (one of the best things about HumanMOOC is the discussion happening between participants outside of Canvas, where the course is based).

I got some great comments and ideas from my fellow participants (most of which know a lot more about online pedagogy than I do). It was kind of like a focused crowdsourcing of a group of online educators :). Here are the results:

Ok, now the first observation is that Tricider might not be the best tool for a simple ‘pro/con’ argument over a single point (How essential are videos in online learning). Perhaps I could have worded this differently, or perhaps set up two separate Tricider pages with “What are the advantages of videos for online learning?” and “What are the disadvantages of using videos in online learning?”. Tricider worked well as a collaborative tool, but the results don’t display as nicely as I would have liked, so here is my breakdown of what I feel I have learnt from this ‘reflection’:

Some Pros of using videos:

  • Video is a powerful visual means to express our identity – it would be a waste not to utilise this medium if we have the opportunity.
  • Video can be more nuanced than text communication – i.e. through facial expression, tone of voice etc.
  • It can be culturally important to have non-textual communication, or at least see the face of the person you are communicating with.
  • Video isn’t necessarily time consuming. If done properly, short videos can be reused again in future courses.
  • Videos do not necessarily need to look ‘nice’ to be effective. A simple video shot on a webcam can be just as human, perhaps even more human than a polished video production.
  • Making mediocre quality videos can also encourage students to try it out themselves!
  • Videos can be a window on the instructor’s passion for the subject, which may not come through in text.
  • Videos aren’t necessaily encouraging passivity – they can be signposts/triggers to exploration and inquiry (if done ‘well’, of course).

Some Cons of using videos:

  • Human presence can be achieved without video (e.g. images/audio).
  • Video is not necessarily a replacement for F2F presence – social interaction online can be as good, e.g. lively forums, social media and other asynchronous activities).
  • A short ‘hello!’ video can make teachers think they have ticked the ‘human presence’ box before the course has begun.
  • Video can be high bandwidth, so not ideal for developing countries – audio can be used as an alternative (but we could also provide both).
  • Making videos can be time consuming (especially for first-timers and people outside their comfort zone)*.
  • Videos can have a limited lifespan and can be difficult to change content (sure, you can make re-useable videos if done well, but does this risk making them ‘generic’ and therefore less human?).
  • Writing does not have to be impersonal! Simple text writing can have character and humanity (although this too requires skill).
  • “Some topics lend themselves to visual presentation” – this is certainly the case with the research writing courses my organisation runs. Scientific writing methods tend to be quite a fact-based academic subject that’s best explained through text examples, quotes and links.

In conclusion I would say that video can be an excellent addition to online learning, if well thought-out and well planned. However, you have to weigh up the ROI of spending the time to make video content. My organisation is very small, with limited time and resources, and in context of training developing country researchers, videos are an optional addition that could be worth trialling further if they add value to the course. Our courses are designed to be extremely low-bandwidth and so we will need to focus on social learning through activities that encourage learner-learner interaction, while continuing to improve and build on our teacher-learner collaborative activities such as peer assessment exercises.

* I have recent experience of trying video for the first time on a MOOC with over 1000 participants. Myself and my colleague in India attempted to record a Google Hangout hosted video introduction, which ended up taking nearly two hours, due to the number of takes. Here is an outtake from our attempts (the idea was for us to introduce ourselves one after the other):

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