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Online Video Disrupts Higher Ed, Streaming Courses to the Masses

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Most of Duke’s course videos are shot using what Evans calls a “do-it-yourself [DIY] kit” that her office created for this purpose; the kit contains a laptop, video camera, tripod, microphone, and recording software. So far, two of Duke’s Coursera courses have required what she calls “specialized video,” including one featuring a faculty member working with human brains in the lab, “slicing into the brain to see different perspectives.”

Videos produced for MOOCs are also enhancing on-the-ground courses. Cook notes that aspect is “a huge incentive for faculty to participate, since it helps them improve their course all around.” Kuzmick says that “part of the mission of the entire HarvardX project is to produce materials and practices that can be deployed in Harvard’s brick and mortar classrooms.”

A Global Learning Curve

The MOOC movement has accelerated with such intensity that creating course content for this new form has required what Cook characterizes as “a quick learning curve.” A major lesson has come from the fact that the MOOC student cohort is international. Evans says that at Duke they have learned to “avoid using slang or other language that may not be familiar to students from other countries and cultures.” Cook concurs but says, “It’s been nice to be reminded that education is global now, [so] we don’t make the assumption that our students will have the same background.”

At Coursera, Koh says, “[W]e also guarantee closed captioning on all of our lecture videos in English.” This has become important for making videos more accessible to students who are not native speakers of English, who may understand written English more proficiently than the spoken language.

Cook has observed that in some cases students are translating video captions into other languages themselves and are sharing the translations with other students. “That’s kind of revolutionary,” she says. “We don’t have the resources to do that translation.”

Bandwidth is another factor to be considered when serving a global audience. While most MOOC videos are streamed in standard and high definition, downloadable files often are offered for students without persistent broadband connections or who want to view videos on-the-go.

And if a video isn’t streaming well or does not meet student expectations, producers can expect to hear about it. Cook recognizes that “the students are demanding better course materials.” When Illinois University’s first courses debuted, “We got feedback within minutes when the videos weren’t working,” she explains. Nevertheless, she says that this “is great feedback for a video producer. It was really exciting for us.”

Emerging Best Practices

As colleges and universities scramble to get on board the MOOC train, many more faculty, instructional designers, and producers will have to get up-to-speed quickly on the best ways to create course content.

Evans offers some practical advice for faculty members producing their own MOOC videos: “Keep the video lectures short and focused ... [and] do think about framing and camera angle to avoid having the camera looking up your nose, for example.” She notes, “Faculty sometimes have trouble talking to just a camera ... [so] a little practice will be helpful.”

Cook points out that as an online instructor, “[Y]ou’re not teaching to a giant lecture hall, you’re teaching to one person.” She says that it’s more like a professor having office hours, where she is visiting with each student in his home.

For any professor, department, or school considering offering up a MOOC, Cook has strong advice about the range of work involved. “The number one thing you have to understand is that these courses are made by a team. The instructor is the content expert, but ... we have somebody clearing copyright, we have librarians looking for alternative images or video, we have a copyeditor and an instructional designer so we can show faculty some different ways to teach,” Cook says.

To assist faculty and producers new to MOOCs in getting started, Koh says Coursera offers a “basic set” of technical documents for setting up a simple studio, in addition to supplying “an expanding list of guidelines and best practices.” He says that Coursera encourages instructors to consider embedding quizzes in their videos and to structure those videos to support this feature. According to Koh, this is to “encourage retrieval-based learning and help students retain information and stay engaged.”

At the same time, Koh acknowledges that MOOCs are a “new, unexplored frontier.” Therefore, he says that at Coursera, “[W]e encourage our instructors to explore and experiment with many different formats.” There is an internal community site where faculty and staff from partner schools can learn from each other as well.

Because MOOCs are in their infancy, Harvard’s Kuzmick says, “I feel nervous about calling anything a ‘best practice.’” He advises that “if you enjoy experimenting and have a little extra time on your hands -- make that a lot of extra time -- this is a fun time to get started [with MOOCs].” Because he works at Harvard’s Center for Teaching and Learning, he is “interested in the way this project is expanding the visual and digital literacies of Harvard’s community of teachers.”

Fresh Excitement for Educational Video

“The excitement surrounding MOOCs has enabled us to focus on instructional video with newfound intensity,” Kuzmick reports, “and I think that everyone involved in the project is becoming more conscious of what it means to communicate in this [relatively] new medium.” Duke’s Evans says that, “I think all of the faculty would say making these videos has caused them to think carefully about how they structure their lectures.” “One of the most rewarding things is when the faculty get it,” Cook says. “It’s so exciting, then ideas get bounced around and it goes into hyperdrive.”

Harvard graduate students assist with video production for edX, which makes Kuzmick excited for the next generation of teaching faculty. He thinks they “will possess not only content knowledge, but also the digital skills and ‘post-textual literacies’ required to produce ever more innovative teaching material in the years to come.”

Creating and offering MOOCs opens up universities and professors to a global audience that otherwise does not benefit from their knowledge and expertise. Cook observes that video is a publishing form, just like an academic paper: “A journal article isn’t likely to go viral, but video could. We’re treating it [video] like a published work, and we’re giving it as much care.”

This article appears in the October/November 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Video Makes the MOOC."

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