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What Educational Video Producers Can Learn From Moneyball

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The canonical story of Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball is a tale of major disruption to the uniquely entrenched business of Major League Baseball (MLB).

In that story, the Oakland Athletics at the turn of the century were a poor MLB club with a personnel budget inadequate to field a competitive team using conventional player evaluation methods. They adopted a data-analytic approach advocated for decades by amateur researchers. Instead of pursuing expensive, marquee players, the Athletics signed inexpensive players flawed by traditional metrics but excellent at the undervalued skill of reliably walking at a higher rate than players who hit well but were called out more often. While the on-field advantage for the A’s is debatable, the effect their approach had on the industry is unquestionable. The data-analytic approach to player evaluation is now the norm: All front offices rely on in-house data analysts to guide roster and draft decisions, and even some on-field tactics, as demonstrated by the increasing frequency of the infield shift.

Another of MLB’s stories of disruption that’s equally worthy of celebration was taking place at roughly the same time as the Moneyball story was becoming a popular book. In 2000, the dot-com bubble violently burst, shuttering improbably successful web companies and casting a pall of widespread skepticism that real money would ever be made over the internet. Amid this chaos, MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM) was formed to assume and standardize website operations across the MLB in exchange for a small and equal investment from each club. In a brilliant display of foresight, MLBAM leadership offered to share any profits—in the uncertain event that they should ever materialize—equally among all teams in the form of a dividend.

MLBAM, of course, has become enormously successful and a leader in streaming media over the past 17 years. That dividends that are paid equally back to the individual MLB clubs has been a significant factor in making classical “moneyball” within baseball obsolete. There aren’t any truly poor MLB teams anymore.

Can we adopt an unconventional perspective on educational video production and delivery to find opportunities that have thus far gone unmined? For both the Athletics and MLBAM, the unconventional perspective the disruptor adopted was obvious in retrospect, but simply outside of the consensus viewpoint.

If you were tasked with supporting teachers in educational video production, the conventional approach to staffing such a team would be to hire videographers with strong pedagogical design backgrounds. These skills are necessary, but an undervalued and overlooked skill in our roster construction is artistic design. Video is a visual medium: There is some value to showing a talking head, and great value in recording the teacher away from the classroom, out in their discipline’s natural environment. But not all visual aids can be photographed. Custom artwork is required to develop high-quality educational video. A full-time graphic designer or scientific illustrator can provide significant bang for the buck by producing custom visual aids to enhance the video, and these visuals can be repurposed in other modes of teaching and research publication. Teachers rarely have any graphic design expertise beyond selecting PowerPoint themes, and they generally welcome expert support in beautifying their teaching materials.

Collaborating with teachers to produce curricular art content is currently a niche skill and one very difficult to find advertised in job postings. With virtual and augmented reality on the rise, where so much more of the visual content is artificial and artistically produced, tomorrow’s top curricular video production shops will be fighting over experienced curricular artists.

[This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "What Educational Video Can Learn From Moneyball."]

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