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Online Students Do Not Learn By Video Alone, Finds Study
Streamed lectures, it turns out, are a poor replacement for classroom learning. To help students absorb what they hear, add interactive activities to the curriculum.

Video is a fixture in most online courses. Since videos tend to replace in-class lectures, it’s tempting to assume that they are at least as effective for learning.

However, an in-person class meeting usually involves more than a lecture. Even the most boring teachers will stop and ask questions (“Bueller ... Bueller ... anyone?”), while more attentive instructors will mix things up with exercises and group activities—all of which are missing from your everyday lecture video.

Recently, five researchers from Carnegie Mellon University decided to test out what difference extra activities make on learning outcomes inside a massive open online course, or MOOC. The title of their study belies their conclusion: “Learning Is Not a Spectator Sport: Doing Is Better Than Watching for Learning From a MOOC.”

They tested a 12-week introductory MOOC in psychology that featured 10- to 15-minute lecture videos as part of the instructional content along with weekly quizzes to measure progress. Out of 27,720 students who registered, about one-third (9,075) also completed interactive activities from the Opening Learning Institute (OLI), such as a learn-by-doing exercise that required students to classify personality traits according to factors they just learned. At the end all students took a final exam.

Looking just at the final, the average score of the students who used the OLI activities was nine points higher than the students who didn’t: 66 points vs. 57 points. Many more students completed the interactive course, too; 939 of the OLI students took the final exam, while only 215 of the students in the non-OLI version did.

It’s important to keep in mind that MOOCs are open, not-for-credit courses, which means they tend to have much higher attrition rates than a traditional for-credit online course. While only 4 percent of students overall finished the final exam, a full 10 percent of the students who used the activities completed the whole course.

This led the researchers to conclude that, “the most influential impact (on learning) comes from doing activities ... The strength of this relationship is more than six times the impact of watching video or reading pages ... and more than three times the combined impact of watching and reading.”

At first glance, this looks bad for online video, but I think the situation is more complex. In the classroom, almost no one would recommend doing away with lectures entirely in favor of all group activities, all the time. Conceding that 15 weeks of nothing but 3-hour lectures might get boring, most classes—even highly interactive ones—include some lecture component to convey information that goes beyond or elaborates on textbooks and other materials. That’s at least one reason why lectures have stuck around for millennia.

As I’ve argued many times before, there is an array of creative approaches to make course videos more interesting, illustrative, and simply superior than most classroom lectures. Certainly you want students to watch a volatile chemical experiment being performed before doing it themselves. It’s even better if the video provides a closer and clearer view than watching it from across the room. Plus, students can rewatch the video. That’s a strong case to hang on to the lecture video.

Of course, much of the learning in chemistry comes from actually performing the experiment. True, it’s probably prohibitive to ship online students a full chemistry set for at-home practice. However, the online course can offer simulations that let students test themselves, with the bonus that they won’t need lab coats and goggles (or fire extinguishers).

The takeaway is that activities that emphasize interactivity are a valuable addition to online courses. Consider them a value-add that only enhances the overall effectiveness of your videos, because better student learning is the most important outcome.

This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Online Students Do Not Learn By Video Alone.”

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