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With Online Video, the Classroom Becomes a Laboratory

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After 2 years of runaway hype, the excitement about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) simmered down in 2014. Some critics and Silicon Valley types have taken this opportunity to declare that the MOOC is dead; in actuality there’s no evidence to support that belief. For instance, MIT has named its MOOC partnership edX as a key component of its future strategy, while the University of Wisconsin prepares to launch its second round of MOOCs in 2015.

Yes, MOOCs are here to stay, and I think that’s a good thing -- but for a reason that perhaps isn’t so obvious.

With thousands of courses and hundreds of thousands of students, MOOCs have the potential to be an enormous laboratory in which to study online learning. Compared to the traditional classroom, most MOOC platforms track significantly more analytic data about how students use materials and proceed through courses. This should be important to Streaming Media readers, because most MOOCs rely on video to deliver instructional content. That makes them a prime source of data about how students consume videos, as well as how consuming those videos correlates with performance.

Nearly a century of moving picture production has resulted in a strong stable of best practices that continues to be refined and revised today as online video becomes more ubiquitous. MOOCs now provide the opportunity to put these practices, and the assumptions behind them, to the test at an unprecedented scale.

We’re already seeing this kind of research.

Earlier this year computer science professor Philip Guo from the University of Rochester, MIT Ph.D. student Juho Kim and edX VP of engineering Rob Rubin published a study titled, “How Video Production Affects Student Engagement: An Empirical Study of MOOC Videos.” The three researchers analyzed 862 videos from edX courses offered in fall 2012, looking at 6.9 million sessions from almost 128,000 students. They classified videos based upon type -- traditional lecture or problem-solving tutorial -- and production style -- PowerPoint slides, live drawing on a tablet, a conventional classroom, or a office-based talking head.

The researchers measured how long students watched each video, and then whether or not they completed post-roll questions that were offered with some videos. They filtered out sessions lasting fewer than 5 seconds, given the likelihood these were cut short due to an unwanted auto-play.

Some of their findings should seem familiar to experienced web video producers. Shorter videos were more engaging, and engagement dropped sharply after 6 minutes. They also found that instructors who speak quickly and enthusiastically were more likely to keep students watching. Videos with PowerPoint slides performed better when they included a view of the instructor.

Working from these findings, an instructional design team might decide to take lectures recorded in the classroom and chunk them into shorter MOOC­sized pieces. However, this study’s findings strongly suggest this shouldn’t be done with just any lecture. Instead, it’s better to plan out lectures to break into segments easily.

Using classroom lecture recordings may not be the best, either. Videos filmed in a more informal style, such as in an office setting, with the instructor making more direct eye-contact with the camera, were more engaging than those recorded in “a multimillion dollar TV production studio.”

This research both confirms some widely held beliefs about online video and suggests some changes that educational producers should consider. But this is just the tip of iceberg. I look forward to more studies about video and learning in MOOCs. This is the kind of knowledge that will benefit all producers, not just educators.

This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "What Can We Learn From MOOCs?"

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