What Makes an Online Instructional Video Compelling? EDUCAUSE Review Excerpts

Video has supported education for many years, and instructional videos are often a key component in online courses. Video has the ability to convey material through auditory and visual channels, creating a multi-sensory learning environment. Yet much remains unknown as to what makes compelling instructional video, especially in the online environment. What characteristics do students perceive as influencing their learning? What videos receive the most views? These questions are important in online course design, and the teaching and learning experiences. It is also important when considering that even though producing video is less complicated and less expensive than ever, media still requires production resources and therefore strategizing the best ways to allocate those resources.

To gain insight into what videos received high numbers of views (and what assets were not watched), we considered analytics from Kaltura. Kaltura tracks a number of data points, including the number of video views, the average play-through rate (how much time the average viewer watched a video), number of video downloads, devices through which videos were accessed, page impression rates, etc.

Analytics offer one dimension of user interaction with videos; to gain another perspective, 10 students were interviewed in order to understand their “lived experiences”3 and perceptions of course media. These semi-structured interviews lasted 30–45 minutes; participants discussed in broad and specific terms their viewing, sharing, and watching habits of online course videos. How do the students reflect on their experiences with course videos? Did the media help the students learn content, especially in ways that contrasted with text? Did the students watch the media to completion? With permission, the interviews were recorded, then transcribed and analyzed.

What Do Analytics Tell Us?

High View Numbers = Direct Connections to Course Assignments

Videos with high numbers of views usually have a direct connection to course assignments (or course assessments). If a video contains required content that a student must use for an assignment or discussion posting, it is correlated with higher view numbers.

A consistent finding across many courses and programs at SCE is that the average amounts of time viewers watch media (in aggregates) is approximately four minutes. This average viewing time repeats across programs and courses, even when considering longer-form videos. To clarify, this does not mean every video is watched an average of four minutes; rather, this is the average number when examining entire categories, such as all media produced in one semester or all media produced in one year.

Average Viewing Time = Four Minutes

The four-minute viewing time has influenced the instructional design and media strategy of video production. Of course, this is not to make the argument that longer videos do not belong online, especially videos with a narrative, or that four minutes is a steadfast design constraint. However, the production team has moved toward creating shorter media pieces. When producing longer-form lecture content, media is often chunked into shorter content segments. Producing 45-minute lectures that “copy the classroom onto the Internet” is not recommended.

Videos Watched on Computers

The online programs at SCE strive to be designed for “any device, anywhere,” accessible by computer, tablet, or phone. These design values persist, but the analytics demonstrate that few students view course videos from a tablet or mobile device. The majority of students watch course videos on a computer. In 2013, the percentage breakdown for watching videos by device was

  • 92 percent computer,
  • 5 percent tablet, and
  • 3 percent mobile.

In some ways this is a counter intuitive finding, especially considering the increasing penetration and prevalence of mobile devices and applications. These data suggest the context in which students approach videos is at home or an office, and not likely in public spaces (such as while commuting).

What Do Student Interviews Tell Us?

Instructor Presence

“The most engaging videos for me [are] when the professors use wit and humor.”

Considering that one of the most significant factors of online course quality is instructor presence and interpersonal interaction,4 one of the benefits video can offer is creating faculty presence in an online environment. In the interviews, students cited faculty presence as a key factor related to their engagement and perceived learning from videos. Humor and wit were described positively. Participants also mentioned the benefits of adding personable context to a subject; for instance, faculty members giving examples from their professional experiences about subject material.

Multimedia Presentation

“[The faculty member] was writing out the equations, and drawing arrows to them, and narrating along with it, so it was […] more narrative, more engaging, and more instructional, because even though it was finance formulas, it was a very visual thing.”

A major affordance of video is the ability to produce multimedia elements and create dynamic learning artifacts. This may be self-evident, yet often instructional videos are produced without much design devoted to sound or imagery.

Production Values

“I think because the video is sophisticated there’s an underlying assumption that the content we’re about to watch has some level of sophistication.”

The question of production values has multifaceted answers. Because almost all computers come equipped with a webcam, and smartphones have video recording capabilities, it is incredibly quick and inexpensive to produce lightweight videos. However, the user experience of watching videos with poorly recorded audio or other amateur qualities (such as shaky camera work) is arguably not a great one. On the other hand, the sky is the limit regarding video production: departments could spend millions of dollars on equipment, animation, graphics, location shoots, etc.

Viewing Habits

“I guess one thing that I slowly learned is that I do need to treat it as a class even though I’m not there in person with the professor and students. Because at first I was like, ‘oh I can just watch this video and multitask,’ and then I realized: no, I actually need to treat it like a class and watch it, sit down, and take notes.”

A consistent theme across the interviews is that students report their viewing habits of course media to mirror that of sitting in a class lecture. Almost all of the interviewees explained they view the course videos on their computers. Most said they take notes as they watch course videos. Some described how if a media piece features an instructor delivering a presentation and the presentation is available for download, they would download the presentation and keep it open in another window to reference as they watched the video. Note also that many participants described their viewing habits in relation to work, such as watching course videos during their lunch break or when traveling on an airplane for business trips.

While the ability to download course videos is not available in all courses, and analytics show that very few people download videos even when the feature is available, two students reported they downloaded course videos and appreciated the option.

These emerging findings, taken from both quantitative and qualitative data, provide some insight as to what characteristics of online videos students describe as compelling, and what types of videos receive the most views.

What Makes an Online Instructional Video Compelling? (EDUCAUSE Review) | EDUCAUSE.edu.