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 . 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.
 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.