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Online Video Learning: Just as Good as In Person?

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Between March of 2020 and August of 2021, a tremendous amount of unexpected data was collected about online educational video, which will be published in peer-reviewed journals over the next several years. One scholar who was definitely not caught flat-footed is my colleague at the University of Illinois, Lawrence Angrave, a teaching professor of computer science. Angrave has led a team of faculty, graduate students, and undergrads since 2014 on the ClassTranscribe project, an open source video platform developed to push the state of the art in two specific areas of great mutual interest: video accessibility and actionable event data reporting for educators.

The platform’s original intent was to experiment with adequately incentivizing the crowdsourcing of accurate video captions by the technically competent student population’s use of the videos. For that function, it currently uses the strategy that I believe is the correct one for education: All videos are seeded with automatically generated captions that are then corrected either incrementally by the students as they notice errors or immediately by a professional captioner if a student with a declared need for captions is enrolled in the course. The platform has evolved to tackle a wide range of features, including those within the areas of usability—creating digital books in PDF or EPUB form from video and other ways to provide visual descriptions for low-vision and blind learners—but is also used for recording events that instructors can use to guide interventions needed for specific students or to course-correct future offerings.

In the spring of 2019, Angrave was served lemons in the form of an 8 a.m. teaching assignment for an introductory systems programming course: a high-enrollment, foundational course required for all students pursuing a computer science major. That’s an unfortunately early wake-up time by undergraduate standards, so instead of forcing the students to struggle through core lecture material before their minds and bodies were awake enough for it, he converted the class into an asynchronous online course to unanimous support from the enrolled students. The fresh lemonade was made along the way by hosting the video content in ClassTranscribe, by now emitting usably granular event data for his research team to analyze by comparing patterns of how students interacted with the video curricula to performance in the course. The results of that study were presented in a paper at the ACM Symposium on Computer Science Education held in Portland, Ore., on the cusp of the COVID-19 breakout in March of 2020. They no doubt provided reassurance to attendees who were uncertain about how effectively they could teach as they were faced with the possibility of moving their instruction online in the coming weeks.

The paper itself is short, clear, provides insightful humility about the conclusions reached, and worth reading in its entirety, but I’ll summarize the major points, adding my own interpretation.

  1. Student learning outcomes were not harmed by moving the course online, and, in fact, scores even improved more than expected based on an existing upward trajectory seen year-over-year.
  2. Providing the curricula in both video and non-video equivalent content form—in this case, an open source digital book—is best, and students could succeed in the course through either modality, although the most frequent strategy by far for the highest-performing students was to spend more time thoroughly watching the lecture videos. Not surprisingly, this strategy was very rarely employed by the lowest-performing students.

In 2022, expect a wealth of rigorously supported analyses of how particular aspects of online educational video can impact student success and learning outcomes, including production techniques, interactive features that are part of the video, alternative modalities for the curricula, and other data-driven insights that are beyond my imagination to foresee.

The rabbit hole for finding these conclusions is open. Good resources for exploring it are browsing websites that aggregate citation networks, such as Elsevier’s Scopus product or Google Scholar, which provides a Cited by link under every search result. Although valuable scholarship on how we will improve the effectiveness of educational video is emerging from all corners of the pandemic-stricken globe, an excellent U.S. resource is the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The EIES, an umbrella organization of research agencies in education under the federal government, is also one of the funders of the ClassTranscribe paper summarized earlier.

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