Author: Elliot Panek

One Way to Make a Lecture Video On Your Own

Having written about conceptual and creative issues relating to lecture video creation, I’m devoting this entry to the technical process of creating videos. As before, I’ll note that I’ve taken one of many possible approaches to creating lecture videos, and not necessarily one that jibes with your teaching style. Ideally, this entry will inspire you to move from thought to action, from having conversations about what you’d like a video lecture to be to actually making one.

I’ll focus mostly on visual elements and assume that you have already written the lecture script. I haven’t tried to write a lecture script as I create visual elements to go with it, though I’d imagine you could do both at the same time. Having the script in place before you start assembling visuals ensures that some of the big questions about how to teach a lesson – what concepts are to be covered, what the structure of the lecture will be – have already been answered. This lets you focus on deciding what visuals best represent your concepts in an engaging fashion.

I’ll discuss three stages of the video-making process: creating visual, recording visuals, and editing. In the table below, I provide a few examples of software you can use for each of these stages. Software, as you probably already know, varies in terms of the ease with which you can access and use it. It’s wise to spend a little time trying out several software options before settling on a combination that works best for you.

Finding visuals Chrome, Google Images, YouTube
Creating visuals Powerpoint, Prezi, Powtoon
Recording visuals Jing, Camtasia, Snagit, Screen-Cast-O-Matic
Editing visuals Camtasia, iMovie, Adobe Premier


My software roster – Google Chrome, Google Images, YouTube, Powerpoint, and Camtasia – is the result of my existing familiarity and comfort with Google software and Powerpoint, and the generosity of my college, which owns a license that allows faculty to use Camtasia.[1]

A screen capture of Camtasia for Windows

When I’m ready to start, I’ll open Camtasia and select “record ”. This allows me to use the web camera attached to my computer to record myself speaking and/or record anything on my computer’s screen. I tend to use the video-recording ability of the web camera sparingly. Many teachers prefer to record videos of themselves lecturing and include a “picture-in-picture” (PIP) video in the corner of the screen throughout the video. While this may make abstract material easier to relate to and provide a “human touch” to the often-impersonal world of online learning, I feel as though the writing style of the lecture and the recorded voice present enough of a personality for the purposes of my course. As with so many things, it depends on what you’re teaching and on your personal teaching style.

This is how “picture in picture” (PIP) looks.

Once the audio track is recorded, I switch over to either YouTube (for lecture passages that would best be accompanied by an existing video clip) or Powerpoint (when I want to create a visual from scratch). If I have an existing YouTube clip in mind, I’ll cue up the clip, start recording my screen using Camtasia, and then play the YouTube clip. I typically use only part of the YouTube videos I find, starting the recording a bit before the section in the video I intend to use and stopping the recording a bit after it ends; you can always clip the ends off of your recording when you edit. Once the clip is recorded, I’ll line it up with a particular spot in the audio lecture, trimming as necessary (see video below).

In cases in which I want to design my own visual, I’ll go to Powerpoint and create a new blank slide to which I’ll add elements – text, shapes, or pictures. When I just want to create a static picture of these elements, I’ll save a slide and import it directly to Camtasia. But when I want to animate the elements so as to engage the viewer and/or to make a point clearer, I use Powerpoint’s animation feature (see video below).

Once I’ve created the Powerpoint animation, I’ll start recording my screen using Camtasia and then play the animation in Powerpoint. This yields a clip that I can then edit and arrange alongside the audio lecture track. These three elements – the audio lecture track, animated Powerpoint slides, and video clips – are the basic material that makes up my video lectures.

This description only scratches the surface of what you can do with this software. As I mentioned before, one often feels overwhelmed by all of the options presented by digital tools. The best way to avoid being overwhelmed is to think back to your original vision for the video lectures, and your original vision as an educator. You may not end up with precisely what you wanted to create when you set out, but having a vision that is anchored in sound pedagogical principles will make the hundreds of little decisions you have to make along the way easier.

There are many ways to convey ideas to students online. You can create a slide-deck, or a podcast, or a text document. But instead you chose to create a video. What can you do with this tool that you can’t do with any other tool? When I watch many of the more popular educational videos, I get the sense that educators aren’t using the medium to its full potential. There are entertaining videos that aren’t pedagogically sound. There are videos that are made by individuals who are clearly experts in their fields that are dreadfully boring. That’s what makes the act of creating a lecture video at this time so exciting – the work you’re doing is helping to answer that as-yet-unanswered question: what does a great lecture video in your area of expertise look like?

[1.] The Innovation Team is also able to make Camtasia available to faculty who are developing material for online courses offered as part of Bama By Distance degree programs.  Contact the Innovation Team at or 205-348-3984 for more information.

Video Lectures: From Concept to Reality

In my first entry, I discussed several of my sources of inspiration as a way of describing how I initially approached the project of making lecture videos. I’m going to leave most of the technical details – what applications I used, how I achieved particular effects – for a third entry. This entry, then, is an account of the awkward transition from abstract vision to deliverable course. Some of the awkwardness was the result of my working style. I don’t tend to systematically evaluate the options before moving forward; I dive in, try things, and, after hitting quite a few dead-ends, get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

One of the first decisions involved determining what proportion of the visuals would be created “from scratch” and what proportion would be “borrowed.” I’d start with a voice-over script that was my own, certainly, but I didn’t necessarily have to write, draw, photograph, or film every visual element I’d use. I already integrated a handful of film clips and photos in my typical classroom lecture, but video lectures presented the opportunity to do this on a much grander scale. What if I just made the whole thing out of clips? Wouldn’t this be better than bullet points or some digital approximation of a whiteboard?

The Pedagogical Potential of Sampling

Here, I feel compelled to cite another point of inspiration: the sample-based hip-hop pioneered in the 1980’s. Listening to this music taught me that a skilled artist could re-purpose clips of existing creative works and make something that felt just as compelling and original as any new work. Sampled beats and horn blasts carried with them the expensive studios and skilled session musicians of the originals, yielding a sound that had a professional sheen to it which other do-it-yourself musical movements like punk and “indie rock” simply didn’t possess. I found echoes of the methods and aesthetics of sample-based hip-hop in online culture of the past decade. Nearly every bit of viral ephemera circulating through social media seems to include an existing photo or phrase re-purposed for ironic intent.

Once you see the creative possibilities of sampling, everything around you (particularly images and recorded bits of sound and video) becomes a potential component in whatever you’re trying to create. This is, mostly, how I approached the process of creating the visuals for my lecture videos. I say “mostly” because I created some visual elements (maybe 25% of those used in my videos) from scratch, typically by creating and animating Powerpoint slides with figures and text and then recording these animations using video editing software. But the vast majority of the visual elements in my videos were appropriated.

Sometimes, I had particular clips or photos I wanted to use, either because I explicitly referenced them in the script or because they were good illustrations of the general principle I was explaining in the script. In the case of film clips, I could just hunt down DVDs of the film and capture the relevant part of the DVD using video capture or editing software, but I quickly realized that this approach would be too slow and onerous. The amount of labor involved in this process would mean that it would take months to create a single clip-heavy video lecture (the math on this changes if you have assistants, as a documentarian might, but this is unlikely to be the case for many teachers). And so I turned to the internet.

Knowing What You’re Missing

Finding these clips or photos was as straight-forward as any online search: I typed various iterations into Google Images or YouTube until I found what I was looking for or until I became too frustrated to keep trying different iterations. This process continually reminded me of the limitations of the seemingly-limitless troves of content freely available on Google Images and YouTube. There were also times when I didn’t have a particular image or clip in mind; I needed an example of a montage from the silent film era, or an image of a director, any director, working with actors. In these instances, the limitations of freely available content weren’t as obvious. I could find exemplars easily enough, but they tended to be the same exemplars, over and over, reflecting a certain limited set of sensibilities: American, white, young, and straight. This worked against my intention to feature images of a diverse array of people in my videos.

What was true of YouTube was also true of Google Images. It’s quite easy to find images and video of young, attractive, white people engaged in a wide variety of behaviors, but much harder to find images and video of anyone else engaging in anything other than culturally stereotypical behavior. There are exceptions, of course, but they take time to find, and so I had to build in the extra time to dig deeper than the first layer of YouTube and Google Images.

Of course, the sampling approach to making videos raises all sorts of ethical issues. Here’s where I landed on those issues: as long as you provide proper attribution and don’t create a substitutable version of the original, you’re okay. There is a way to create a sample-heavy work that motivates the listener/viewer to track down the entire original work, thereby increasing the visibility of the original. This happened with me while watching Visions of Light and I hope it happens when I include a visually stunning clip from an obscure Iranian film to which most students would never have been exposed. I feel a bit less certain when defending my use of interviews and B-Roll from documentaries I found on YouTube. Arguably, I’m mooching off of others’ hard work, and because lecture videos exist outside of the classroom context, I can see how they could be substituting for the original in some sense. I’m certainly open to a debate on what it’s okay to sample in a lecture video.

From the Specific to the Abstract

The sampling method is great when you’re describing a concept and want an accompanying visual to act as a kind of concretization of the concept, but this isn’t always what you want. Many textbooks and classroom lectures alternate between explication of abstract concepts and descriptions of specific examples, but most online video “explainers” either commit to showing specific examples of concepts explained on the soundtrack or show simple animations corresponding to the words on the soundtrack.

In its specificity, video forecloses imagination in a way that print and audio tend not to. When listening or reading, individuals can imagine what characters and places look like; in the learning context, students can fill in your own examples of a concept. So, that’s one thing I discovered through trial and error: there are certain ideas that I wanted, in some sense, to remain abstract. In such instances, I created animated diagrams that used shapes to represent concepts and their relationships to one another.

Creating and Maintaining a Visual Style

When creating these diagrams, I tried to think in terms of color, shape, movement, and using the entire frame. I used similar colors for ideas or concepts that are proximate to one another, and contrasting colors or shapes for concepts that are not proximate to one another. I didn’t bunch things up at the top of the frame just because the program with which I was working did this by default. I avoided using small fonts, anticipating that some students would be watching these videos on smaller screens. And I maintained visual appeal by moving the shapes around the frame, not in a gratuitous way (i.e., because I could), but instead as a means of improving clarity and keeping students engaged.

While I used some variety from minute to minute to keep students engaged (in terms of editing pace, color, and amount of movement), I tried to maintain some level of consistency across the videos. I found that if you use a lot animation in the first half of a video and don’t use any in the second half of the video, it was distracting (the viewer is left wondering, “where did the movement go? Why did things slow down?”). Each lecture video and the series of lecture videos will have a kind of internal stylistic norm that guides students’ expectations, and violations of those expectations will distract the student.

Here, it’s worth paying attention to how long it takes you to create your first lecture video. Of course, some of the process will become easier and quicker as you become more experienced, but not all of it will. If you develop an aesthetic that requires forty hours of work per video, you can easily end up with inconsistent qualities across your videos that is borne out of the necessity of finishing all of your videos in the allotted time.

Often, I wouldn’t know if a certain moment of the lecture would work well with a particular image until I tried it out. As the accomplished film editor Walter Murch notes, stitching together a motion picture is a lot like learning how to dance: you just need to get out there and try it.

Here is an example of my approach to sampling in online lecture videos:

In the next entry, I’ll share more of the technical details of the video lecture creation process.


What Are Video Lectures Supposed to Be?

I’m going to use this entry as an opportunity to write about questions that occurred to me as I engaged in the process of making my first lecture videos and how I attempted to answer those questions. Most of these questions relate to higher-level, “philosophical” concerns about learning in the 21st century. It’s hard for me to separate practical issues from the philosophical ones because as I was engaged in the process, one was never far from the other. One moment, I’d be combing through YouTube in search of an example of parallel editing in a Bollywood film and the next moment, I’d be asking myself, “what, exactly, am I trying to do here?”

So, what was I trying to do? What are lecture videos? What are they supposed to be, and what does the optimal online video in 2017 look like? Are they online versions of in-person lectures? That was probably the default starting point for a while, the easiest option from both a practical and a creative standpoint. More recently, the technology we use to create, edit, and exhibit video has become more user-friendly and the information environment in which lecture videos exist – the information that lives alongside the videos and that is, in some sense, the template for students’ processing any kind of information – has evolved. It is easier than it was five years ago to do something other than replicate the in-person lecture experience, and the information environment in which our students live essentially demands that we try something new.

Once you decide that a video lecture doesn’t have to replicate the in-person experience, what are the plausible alternatives? Too often, the exhilaration of realizing the near-infinite possibilities that digital media offer the creative individual gives way to a kind of paralysis. Where to begin?

Points of Inspiration

Most of my inspiration came from outside of the traditional educational context; it includes online videos, documentaries, and educational television. The inspiration most proximate to the topic I teach – film history and theory – is Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting a series of online videos about a variety of topics relating to film. What appealed to me about Zhou’s videos is what set them apart from other videos about film, and other online videos in general. Zhou’s videos weren’t heavily dependent on snark or “edgy” humor, and they didn’t move at a breakneck pace that leaves viewers only with the feeling of having learned something without actually having done so.

Though digital media permit a near-infinite range of creative possibilities, there is a kind of tyranny of the social/viral information economy that results in uniformity across contexts and domains. This economy imposes its version of market logic on all content, and the social/viral market logic dictates that content producers cater (either deliberately or subconsciously) to the shard of the population most likely to engage with content online: teens seeking entertainment. Teens’ “shares” and “follows” drive ad dollars, leading to the prevalence of a certain aesthetic that, while not inherently inferior to any other aesthetic, isn’t optimal for actual learning. Zhou’s videos were still entertaining, still alluring, but they were also substantive and clear.

This clarity gave Zhou’s videos an edge over the medium through which most scholarly ideas circulate – print [1]. Too often, textbooks on the topic of film used tortured explanations of their object of study in their analyses. Unsurprisingly, it is better to show students ten seconds of a Hitchcock film than to try to describe it. There was a lack of clarity in writing on film, but also a sense that an opportunity was being missed, an opportunity to use the power of the moving image to attract the learner. This brings me to another inspiration: Visions of Light, a 1992 documentary that covered much of the same territory as my undergraduate textbooks but did so in a way that felt, to the learner, less like a chore and more like something you wanted to pore over multiple times. Visions of Light doubled as a curated tasting menu of gorgeous cinematography, one that sent me searching for films from different countries and decades, diversifying my tastes. Zhou’s videos and Visions of Light provided me with a template for my lecture videos.

All fine and well if you’re making lecture videos about film (a natural fit!), but what if you’re teaching biology, or philosophy? This brings me to the final point of inspiration I’ll mention, one I encountered as a child watching PBS in the 1980’s: Carl Sagan’s educational miniseries, Cosmos. It was alluring and substantive, and it used motion pictures to give the oft-abstract material a personality, and to jump across space and time. Science-savvy friends of mine argue that Sagan and other pop science evangelists occasionally play fast and loose with crucial scientific concepts, sacrificing rigor and accuracy in their attempts to excite the imagination. So, perhaps the precise formula that Sagan used isn’t to be emulated, but I think the basic principle stands: you can make alluring, substantive online video about anything, not just film history.

Are You Not Entertained?

Why bother to be alluring? Here, I think it’s worth thinking about students’ information environment and how their minds work. You need not mimic every attribute of entertaining online video, but it’s worth keeping in mind that your lecture videos live alongside the listicles, social media posts, and other online videos students consume before, after, and sometimes while reading and watching material for your course. This reality should prompt educators to ask: to what extent do we simply expect students to be motivated to pay attention, to understand that some lessons are more difficult and less exciting than leisure pursuits and that in order to achieve your long-term goals of expertise and employment you must sometimes do things that aren’t fun? With whom does the burden of motivating the reluctant college student rest? To what extent is it our job to be entertainers?

These questions aren’t specific to the online environment. They apply to the lecturer wondering how many jokes to use. As with so many things, it’s a balancing act, something that likely varies by discipline, by generation, and even by particular groups or individuals. I only raise these questions here because they occurred to me, periodically, as I made my lecture videos, and to remind anyone making lecture videos that it doesn’t take much technical know-how to create something alluring. The prime assets in this environment are time, creativity, passion, and domain expertise.

Compared to What?

I’ll conclude with a question about “comparison class”: How do our online videos look alongside bigger-budget educational online videos produced by large, well-funded organizations? If there isn’t a bigger, better version of the video you’re about to make, who’s to say there won’t be in the next six months?

I’m content to think of my videos as a stop-gap solution. At the time of their creation, there were no videos doing exactly what was needed for my course. There were some dry, Powerpoint-with-voiceover YouTube videos, some snarky top-ten lists, and some competent, engaging one-off videos that weren’t part of a larger semester-long arc, but none of this was precisely what I wanted to use.

I also think of my lecture videos as “living documents.” With relative ease, I can swap out clips or sections of my voice-over from semester to semester. There is a kind of nimbleness that smaller players have that large companies with more resources tend not to have.

My talk with John Seely Brown at this year’s OLIS un-conference convinced me of this final point: you can’t just create videos and leave it at that. The videos must be part of something that cannot be superseded by Khan Academy next year. That “something” should probably include well-managed interaction among students and tailored feedback on assignments that makes use of the instructor’s domain expertise, but those are only some of the possibilities. Creating videos demands a high “up front” time investment, but once they’re created, they leave the instructor with spare time that they would’ve used to lecture each semester. We shouldn’t just erase that time/labor and hand off recorded online courses to graduate students or just automate the whole thing. Instead, we should think about what can be done with that time to improve the pedagogical experience.

In the next entry, I’ll discuss more of the nitty-gritty, day-to-day challenges of creating lecture videos.

[1] This brings up a question to which I’ll return: what is the comparison class to which video lectures belong? The fact that we call them “video lectures” assumes a similarity to in-person lectures, but perhaps they’re more like books or online video in terms of how they are produced and consumed.