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More Than Enough Is Too Much: Educational Video Is Overused

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The opposite of strategy is expediency. The default behavior in natural systems is to go with the flow, to follow the entropic muse and do what seems easiest and least complicated given the facts at hand. Strategically driven behavior is to invest work into rerouting the flow at the guidance of a perspective that transcends situational intelligence. The current trend in online education is for video to serve as the primary or even sole method of content presentation. While educational media production is my livelihood, I believe that instructional video is being overused and that we should strategically diversify our curricular presentation tactics.

With each new video technology, educational products will hit the market to explore and exploit its limits. With notable exceptions, such as exercise videos, it is unusual for a curriculum to stay all-video and it will naturally evolve to use video only where it proves most effective. The all-streaming-video online course has proven unexpectedly resilient over the past few years and has arguably established itself as the new norm.

Several factors have led to this state of affairs. The most prominent are the limitations of the extremely popular modern MOOC platforms, which support little more than video playlists, forums, and quizzes. That the major MOOC platforms rely on video as the principle means of instruction is not surprising: They originally spun off from computer science and engineering departments at MIT and Stanford. At the introductory level, those topics lend themselves well to instruction by video, involving frequent demonstration, much like workout videos.

Another factor is the improvement in DIY video software. Anyone can make a video and find a streaming site to host it. Many products support educational media production by accepting PowerPoint files as a video source, for better or worse.

This is where expedient decision making begins to cause problems for teachers and learners. Because we have tools that make it easy to turn a PowerPoint file and a short recording session into a video, it’s expedient to exclusively rely on this technology to build a course. That’s not to say that good instructional video cannot be made using these tools, just that all curricular materials should not be produced using them merely because it’s easy. We’re so caught up in the novelty of the tools that we’re using them to make substandard, ill-conceived curricular materials.

Let’s pick on a most egregious, yet unfortunately common, case—the use of video to deliver narrated, static slideshows. On a purely technological basis, there may be no worse online delivery mechanism than video for this sort of content. In order to support adaptive rate-switching and efficient seeking, streaming video requires a keyframe at a fixed interval, where all pixels in the frame are fully specified, at most every 4 to 8 seconds, but usually more often. If a slide stays on screen for a long period of time, the keyframe depicting that slide will be needlessly sent many times, wasting bandwidth and often causing a perceptible flicker. The motion picture content in a video is opaque to assistive technology as well: A student who is blind would not be informed about any content presented in the slides since we threw away the markup of the PowerPoint file when we treated it as a camera source instead of a starting point for something interactive and engaging.

Watching mandatory video can be a fatiguing, unpleasant experience for both teacher and learner. Producing an entire curriculum of dull slideshow video would be a demoralizing, demeaning drudgery unbefitting a creative teaching professional. Consider that the only other situation where students would experience mandatory video is the forced advertising that’s shown before a webpage will load or that is interspersed in a listicle.

Cisco predicts that 82 percent of internet traffic by 2020 will be video. Between now and then, let us think strategically about what we can do to make more of it worth watching by developing better content presentation tools for those topics that do not lend themselves well to video instruction. And we also need to deliberately vary the way we present content by being sensitive to how students might most effectively absorb its lessons.

[This article appears in the July/August 2017 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "More Than Enough Is Too Much."]

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