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Class Act: Form to Enhance Function

One of the things I love about producing online video is that it’s inherently free from the strictures of traditional offline video. Popular internet videos are often only a few minutes long, while some lectures or concerts might last hours. Viewers are free to skip around freely, and many lecture capture platforms make it easy to navigate by PowerPoint slide or chapter division. And producers are under no obligation to stick to a specific running length, or even to make just one video to cover a particular topic.

The fundamentally linear nature of traditional video, whether in broadcast or on tape or disc, always constrained how we watched it. With broadcast you were a slave to the clock and couldn’t skip back and forth. The fact that you could fast-forward and rewind videotapes meant you might skip commercials or replay a scene, but jumping around a tape was cumbersome. While some applications experimented with nonlinear programming, such as interactive laser discs and DVDs, the random access features were more novelty than useful.

While most of us take the random access, short-attention-span nature of the internet for granted, my experience working with educators shows me this nature isn’t taken into account or fully exploited when designing video projects. Simply put, we may consume video online like caffeine-addled teenagers, but too often we produce it using the same paradigms as prime-time TV.

Take, for instance, an unavoidable mainstay of educational content: the lecture video. Whether documenting a class or mimicking it, the lecture video might last hours, with almost no concession made to the online environment. Lecture capture platforms make the video more nonlinear by providing clear chapter points, but even though these chapters can be edited, I’ll bet most of the time the automated marks are left alone. This means the producer has little role in tailoring the video to the internet—the viewer does most of the work.

But who says a lecture can only show up in its full, mostly unedited glory? If we’re honest, even veteran producers rarely watch a lecture all the way through with rapt attention. Taking this into account, why not create highlights of lecture videos attuned to the way most people actually watch? There might be a few true "Aha!" moments in an hour-long lecture. So edit each into its own video but embed them into the same page as the full lecture. If the highlights whet the viewer’s appetite, the full video is still readily available.

Admittedly, this is a pretty simple trick, not unlike a movie trailer. The next logical step is to plan your production with the assumption that it doesn’t have to be a single piece.

Recently my department was asked to produce profile videos of successful undergraduates for a new student welcome site. We were already experienced in producing 3-minute profiles of faculty members, integrating sit-down interviews with b-roll of them teaching and working. Yet even this approach struck us as too formal and long to appeal to high school seniors. We still based the videos on interviews with the students. But then we edited each into four or five much shorter videos sharply focused on a topic such as internships, research or extracurricular activities. From the very beginning we planned for this approach, so we made sure our questions were targeted. Then the videos were embedded on the site so that visiting students could choose which to watch based upon their interests.

Length is not the only dimension available to exploit. We also have time. Many of my favorite websites—whether entertainment or news—are updated regularly, so I keep coming back. Even though a course syllabus might be organized on the basis of weekly assignments, there’s no reason not to produce videos that debut even on a daily basis. Think of it like an academic Rocketboom or Wine Library TV. Done well, students have an incentive to check their course sites more often, promoting greater engagement.

Finally, we shouldn’t forget that online videos are not just TV on a computer; they don’t have to be islands unto themselves. Some ideas are better expressed in text and graphics, where videos serve then to elaborate. Additionally, some students simply prefer reading while others greatly benefit from visual instruction. An online learning environment that is designed from the start to weave together text, graphics, audio, and video has the potential to maximize the effectiveness of each medium, thwart tedium, and engage more learning styles.

Online education should not be about just putting lecture notes and articles on a webpage. So let’s not restrict educational video to being merely the online equivalent of a videocassette or DVD.