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Authenticity Is Key for Educational and Training Videos

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Authentic is a word that gets tossed around too much, if you ask me. From benign uses such as “authentic Mongolian cuisine” to more cloying declarations that some designer outfit makes an actor look “so authentic” (an “authentic” what?), the word is being bled of its meaning. But when it comes to instructional video, authenticity is still vital.

Remember suffering through awful, or awfully hilarious, instructional videos in school or during work training? The reason why they’re laughably wretched is that the videos are stiff, clearly put on, and artificial. Even if the information is accurate, there’s nothing about the situations that seem real or ... authentic.

One place authenticity has a foothold is in language teaching. The idea is to introduce students to traditions and circumstances that they would actually encounter in a country where the language they are learning is spoken. A French student might learn something as quotidian as how to order a croissant and cafe au lait. It’s exactly this sort of mundane transaction in which a student visiting France might first apply her language skills in the real world.

To help students see and understand the cultural and linguistic nuances, a teacher could certainly record a video simulation in a studio or classroom using actors fluent in French. No doubt, the students will see it for what it is -- actors pretending to order refreshments at a fake cafe -- even if they understand the lesson clearly.

By comparison, consider a movie that’s so bad it’s good -- and hilarious. Whether Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space or Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, these movies are so laughably terrible because they fail to convince us that they’re even plausible. Wooden acting, cheap sets, and hackneyed dialogue conspire to distract us from the drama, keeping us from believing in the illusion for more than a moment.

Even if it already outclasses an Ed Wood production, our French video could be made more believable. Similar to a frugal movie producer, shoot the video in an actual cafe -- just not in France. Even a student center coffee shop could be set up to look vaguely Parisian and more realistic.

The best approach is to shoot the video in France or another Francophone country. On its own, this seems like a pretty big travel budget for just one short instructional video. But the key is to be creative and take advantage of existing resources.

Many schools sponsor trips abroad, giving a teacher not just the occasion to shoot in real locations but also a providing bunch of students who can be actors and crew. A teacher can set up all sorts of real interactions that are committed to video. The actors’ gaffes can be used as an instructional device, giving future students the opportunity to critique and correct these very real performances.

The idea is not limited to just language learning. Authenticity is just as important for organizational and enterprise learning, where you may only have to travel as far as a shop floor or an operations center.

Consider the cable show "How It’s Made," which has a premise that is as simple as its name. I could watch a weekend marathon of this program that visits factories that make everything from bacon to baseballs because the show’s bedrock is footage shot at every step of manufacture, giving you a close-up insider’s view. There are not even any actors -- just real workers doing their thing, along with an omniscient narrator guiding you through the process.

Your organization could make a "How It’s Made" to suit any number of training needs. Even if your company makes apps rather than widgets, odds are you need to orient new hires about how it’s done. Watching someone at work actually making something -- with real mistakes made and corrected -- is engaging because it’s authentic. On video, it’s a lesson that the student or trainee can rewatch and re-examine.

Authenticity is a production value that your instructional productions can benefit from immediately.

This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Authenticity Is a Production Value."

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