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Why My MOOC is Not Built on Video

A MOOC professor takes a contrarian view and creates a MOOC without relying on videos, and makeing the claim that they are not necessary for a meaningful online learning experience.

 Editors Note: This is a guest post by Lorena A. Barba, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at George Washington University

The participants of #NumericalMOOC will have noticed that we made only one video for the course. I thought that maybe I would do a handful more. But in the end I didn’t and I don’t think it matters too much.

Why didn’t we have more video? The short answer is budget and time: making good-quality videos is expensive & making simple yet effective educational videos is time consuming, if not necessarily costly. #NumericalMOOC was created on-the-fly, with little budget. But here’s my point: expensive, high-production-value videos are not necessary to achieve a quality learning experience.

The fixation with videos in MOOCs, online courses and blended learning is worrisome. At the edX Global Forum (November 2014), it was often mentioned that producing a MOOC is a high-cost operation, with an estimated average expense of $100,000 per course. This is probably a somewhat overindulgent price for appearance, rather than substance. There is no evidence justifying the “production value” from a learning perspective. In fact, as far back as 1971, Donald Bligh concluded that “there is not much difference in the effectiveness of methods to present information.” [1] In this sense, a video—however nicely produced—is not better than a lecture.

A personal anecdote

I recently decided that I needed to brush up on my knowledge of statistics. As a student of mechanical engineering, I took an undergraduate “Probability and Statistics” course years ago, but I don’t remember that much. With an interest in education research, I now feel I should be in command of one particular concept: p-values.

So, I registered for a MOOC: “Statistics in Medicine,” by Kristin Sainani, on Stanford Online. The content of this course is excellent and Sainani is brilliant: she uses many examples from the medical literature that make the subject come alive. Of course, I could hardly have the time to complete a traditional MOOC (with deadlines and a set end date)—last Fall, I was designing and teaching my own MOOC!—and the best I hoped for was to watch the lectures dealing with the concepts I wanted to learn.

I watched the first few lecture videos, to get a baseline, then cherry-picked the videos dealing with p-values. It was perfect to watch the vids on my iPad while on the treadmill, getting some needed exercise at the same time. The concepts were clear: I could follow the explanations easily and the examples put things in context and helped me understand the importance of knowing statistics!

But two weeks later … I couldn’t remember how sample size affects significance, why statistical significance did not imply clinical significance, and how confidence intervals are related to p-values. I had to watch the videos one more time, then everything was clear again.

But a month later … You know where this is going.

Now, consider this: I have a PhD in Aeronautics from Caltech—I’ve proved that I am a “good student.” Yet, without manipulating the new concepts through writing things down, making summaries, diagrams, working through examples and so on … I just forgot.

Intro video for Practical Numerical Methods with Python

Watching videos is not better (or worse) than sitting through lectures

Videos are nice, they can get you exposed to a new concept for the first time in an agreeable way, but they do not produce learning, on their own. Students need to engage with the concepts in various ways, interact with ideas and problems, work through a process of “digestion” of the learning material.

Granted, the general statement above refers to a particular kind of video: the expository “lecture video,” usually a narrated Power Point and sometimes a “talking head” video. These are no better (or worse) than traditional lectures. They are simply convenient because there is no need to travel and sit in the same room with other students and instructor. And because you can rewind and watch again.

Despite their popularity in MOOCs and flipped classrooms, “lecture videos” have the same pitfalls as regular lectures: they provide a false sense of clarity and are utterly forgettable.

Educational-video champion Derek Muller (Veritasium) claims, for example, that typical physics videos do nothing to clear students’ misconceptions—unless these misconceptions are tackled head on, creating a sense of confusion.[2] But most educational videos don’t do that: they try instead to be “clear” and avoid confusion.

Unfortunately, most of the video I see in MOOCs is not very effective, despite the so-called production value. I question the rationale behind spending large sums in making documentary style videos and placing emphasis on the amount of time students spend watching.

What are videos good for?

Institutions like the UK’s Open University have for decades been researching the best uses of video [3]; among several others: to show complex (or expensive, or dangerous) experiments; to illustrate ideas using slow-motion, fast camera or animation; to substitute for a field visit; to demonstrate techniques or mechanical skills.

Screencasts using on-screen annotations (a.k.a. digital inking) are certainly useful for things like homework-solution review and exam preparation. But students tend to use them strategically, sometimes viewing a video or a particular portion multiple times.[4]

With more time, I would certainly like to add a handful of screencasts to #NumericalMOOC to support some theory, explain tricky concepts or demonstrate a technique. But that would be icing and not the cake. Quality learning is happening without them, because we combine learning pathways, instructional scaffolding, interactive computing with our IPython Notebooks, and independent student work.

In conclusion

“Lecture videos are a central feature in the student learning experience in nearly all MOOCs,” advises the MITx Office of Digital Learning. [5] I think this advise is misguided. Their recommendations to make videos better are sound (keep them short, informal, etc.), but the overall emphasis is too much on the instruction, and too little on the student—which is where learning really happens.

The problem with making videos “central” to the student experience is that it comes at the expense of higher-order learning activities. More worrying is that students will spend almost all their time watching videos, as if that could magically elicit learning, without the hard work.

Videos can be one device for building a MOOC or a small online or blended course, but not generally the most important one. We need to acknowledge the limitations of video and place emphasis on authentic learning and not just “engagement” (time watching, # of clicks). [6]

I’ve been making screencasts for ten years and my videos on computational fluid dynamics have amassed more than 300,000 views. Yet for #NumericalMOOC, we designed the central learning experience around a set of IPython Notebooks, and meaningful yet achievable mini-projects for students. I guarantee learning results to any student that fully engages with these!

[1] “Dazzling presentations do not necessarily result in learning.” [Bligh, 2000; p. 121]
Donald A. Bligh, “What’s the use of Lectures?” Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 2000 (first US edition of the revised 1971 work)

[2] Derek Muller, “Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos.” http://youtu.be/eVtCO84MDj8

[3] Bates, A. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge. See: http://www.tonybates.ca/2012/03/10/pedagogical-roles-for-video-in-online-learning/

[4] K. R. Green, T. Pinder-Grover, J. Mirecki Milunchick (2012) “Impact of screencast technology: Connecting the perception of usefulness and the reality of performance,” Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 101, No. 4, pp. 717–737.

[5] MITx: Video Engagement in MOOCs, http://odl.mit.edu/mitx-video-engagement-in-moocs/

[6] P. J. Guo, J. Kim & R. Rubin (2014), How Video Production Affects Student Engagement: An Empirical Study of MOOC Videos

(c) 2015 Lorena A. Barba, released under Creative Commons Attribution License CC-BY 4.0

Comments 18

  1. Jimzy Quinto

    Overall, using fewer videos is worthwhile, but most of the cost of a good MOOC is not in video. If you look at something like MITx 6.002x, it was about 40 hours per week of work on problem sets (Jerry Sussman), 20 on laboratories (Chris Terman), 12 hours on lecture videos (Anant Agarwal, who ended up as the public face of the course by virtue of those videos), and 8 hours on optional tutorials (Piotr Mitros and Jerry Sussman), omitting the time developing platform (Piotr Mitros).

    The assessments were by far the most expensive aspect of the course, and by far the most important.

    The $100k figure is very low, but most of it is human time. That’s the cost of 1 instructor-semester.

    • Lorena A. Barba

      MITx 6.002x is a very unique course and certainly not representative of the majority of mainstream MOOCs.

      According to the study quoted in Chris’ comment (below) and summarized in a recent Medium post [1]:

      *”Routinely, video is the single most expensive item in a MOOC’s budget, in both time and money.”*

      I’m guessing from your inside information that you are associated with MITx. Your own neighbors at the MIT Media Lab co-authored the SSRN report on video and online learning and the Medium post quoted above. But I guess there is disagreement about these things even within the institute. In my post, I quoted a web page of the MIT Office of Digital Learning where they were giving the advice to the effect of “you should do lots of video”—a web page that they have since taken down. Not only that, I got an email from someone in that office asking me to remove the quote and citation of the webpage in my post (!) because they don’t really take that position. Of course, you can’t *really* delete things from the Internet, and the web archive remains [2], so anyone can decide for themselves if my citation was true to the spirit of that MiTx web page or not.

      [1] https://medium.com/@medialab/why-there-are-so-many-video-lectures-in-online-learning-and-why-there-probably-shouldn-t-be-2fad009c30b5?source=tw-61e5c5a9d053-1434700544365

      [2] http://web.archive.org/web/20140828094404/http://odl.mit.edu/mitx-video-engagement-in-moocs/

  2. ML Admin

    Using videos is a good way to explain a subject – we are leveraging videos in our mooc to engage the audience and then beaming live lectures to our students to further explain the concept.

  3. Guest

    Don’t justify laziness.

  4. Good post by Lorena A. Barba on why video-based learning is not the best of options. | S/R

    […] Why My MOOC is Not Built on Video – MOOC Report […]

  5. Rufe

    What you’re saying is that people are lazy and looking for an easy way like watching videos multiple times instead of “engagement with the concepts in various ways”. It isn’t videos problem, the same can be said for any method of presenting information. I can attend a live lecutre or read a book and clearly understand the concepts. Then let a month pass and … I won’t quite remember the details. Or assume I had attended lectures, but then didn’t do any labs or problem solving, then when I met the subject in the wild I’ll kind of have understanding of how it works, but will not be able to actually get it working. And this is not because of me consuming new information through the videos, this is because I didn’t repeat what I learnt, didn’t memorize the key concepts and didn’t do any labs and other hands-on activities. It is a student problem. Students are lazy and just consuming information is easier (watching is even easier than reading) for them than engaging in hands-on labs or problem-solving.

    And I don’t agree that videos bear the same value compared to a book or a live lecture. First, recording gives a presenter an ability to deliver a perfect lecture (compared to a live one). Second, watch some videos by Keith Barker of CBTNuggets for example. His lively way of serving complex ideas is empowering. No book will ever deliver this kind of experience. You become addicted to learning new things after watching his videos.

    Also your example of watching and forgetting in two weeks, then watching again and keeping it for a month this time is just how it works, be it video, lecture or a book. Repetition is the key to the fluency. See the “How I rewired my brain to become fluent in math” article by Barbara Oakley for more details.

    • mattlutze

      It sounds like you’re mostly agreeing with the author here.

      A foundational point of the above article is that videos are about the same value as a lecture, and that students need instead to interact with the concepts in order to internalize them.
      I think you’re both agreeing and disagreeing with that above, and it leaves me a little confused.

      On the value of video lectures — first, I’m not sure any lecture can be “perfect”, in either the pedantic way I probably mean here or the general way you’re expressing in your comment. I’d also disagree that videos are the highest order of learning empowerment. I’ve had a few textbooks in my years that made me downright giddy to learn a subject.

      One thing to acknowledge across the board is that learning is done through different ways for different people. Some folks do learn best being spoken to as in a lecture. Others through repetition and project work.

    • Kelly Tribble

      I’m a big proponent of using videos (especially cheap, amateurish ones)
      to inspire, clarify, and show things that cannot normally be shown. But, it’s not just a matter of “people are lazy.” In the 1980s, G. Solomon did some seminal research on the “does media matter” question. This research (along with that of others) has consistently shown that – when presented with video or “tv” – people usually default to a passive mode of watching… just like watching television at home. It all makes perfect sense (and indeed can inspire one to pursue additional lines of video-knowledge), but without taking notes, summarizing, testing oneself, or otherwise manipulating/engaging with the material, it leaves one’s memory pretty quickly. It creates a false sense of knowledge… that “Galloping New Ignorance” that some have spoken of.

  6. J Copperhead

    I wouldn’t have taken the courses I took without the benefit of the videos. Computer programming, and Macro economics, for example, would’ve been extremely difficult to grasp without the plots and graphs step by step development.

    I feel the articles are dedicated to justify the “no videos are necessary” by any means to save money. The content reminded me of the new book (and documentary) “The Scientists of Doubt,” and the battle cry “no global warming, tobacco doesn’t kill people, and guns don’t murder – people do…”

    There might be courses that videos don’t add value to the course, I admit that…philosophy, poetry, … for example, but to kill the idea of video recording to save money, defeats the whole idea of MOOCS and Coursera. Financially, the $100,000 estimated cost to produce a course with videos can be covered by 2000 students paying $50 for certification… Every course I took from Coursera, 100,000-220,000 students were registered. Can’t there be at least 2000 among these paying the $50 for certification?

    I don’t know what others want to do…. but for me…. I will not take a course without the right videos.

    • ML Admin

      i agree – we have students who pay for our certification – and we also beam lectures regularly apart from our videos

    • Matt

      As an instructional designer that has worked with content from most disciplines, its more like most courses don’t gain value from videos, and some do. Videos can add to teacher presence in some ways, but in many ways we are all so comfortable with videos that using or not using them is more of a comfort zone issue than a true pedagogical consideration. I rarely get any proposals for video usage that couldn’t use other media just as effectively.

      Personally I skip computer programming courses with video and look for ones with screen shots. I learn much faster that way.

      Let’s also not forget that those certification fees get divided up in a lot of ways, so it takes much, much higher numbers to re-coup video production costs.

  7. Chris

    Lorena Barber is right to question the (over)use of video in MOOCs today. Video certainly has a role to play in getting learners excited about a course (course trailer), in taking them places they otherwise couldn’t go (virtual field-trips) and in fully exploiting the affordances that the medium offers (e.g. showing experiments up close). However, there are too many MOOCs that use video in a unreflective way and unnecessarily, imho, spend money on creating glossy talking head videos that are under-watched, not very engaging and definitely not conducive to higher-order learning.

    For some interesting reflections on the use of video in online learning and potential for improvements, check out this paper http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2577882

  8. yish

    Very well argued, but for someone who comes from an educational design background, this is hardly any news. However, it does offer a vivid illustration of a phenomena Daina Laurillard and Tony Bates have warned about: how MOOCs risk driving pedagogy backwards. It’s not that you can’t do meaningful learning in a MOOC, its that too many people are designing MOOCs as edutainment media rather than as educational experiences.

    Mike Sharples recently gave talk, where he used data from FutureLearn to show that a MOOC of over 10 minutes will make students leave the MOOC – not just the video. This was the trigger for our “six minute video” design pattern

    But, there’s ample evidence that passive learning is much less effective than active learning. See for example:
    Freeman, S.; Eddy, S. L.; McDonough, M.; Smith, M. K.; Okoroafor, N.; Jordt, H. & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014), ‘Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111 (23) , 8410–8415. http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410.abstract

    And for a more entertaining perspective:

    • Lorena A. Barba

      Hello, Yishay:
      Thanks for your comment. Indeed, the disapproving observation that MOOCs took a step backwards and “ignore the literature” has been made in reference to several trends. The most sweeping critics (e.g., Stephen Downes) point to the mainstream xMOOC design, in contrast to the original cMOOCs—they’ve taken control away from the learner and are mostly instructor-centered, they’re modeled as “learning in a box” (like the LMS-centered on-campus courses), and they are lecture-based.

      Another trend where MOOCs are taking a step backwards is learning analytics. I don’t know what data Coursera gives its partners, but the edX Insights product is shallow. It only provides demographics, measures of so-called “engagement,” and grade distributions. The overall focus seems to be on enrollments and clicks, in the fashion of web commerce. Aggregated data on graded content can be associated with the learning happening in a MOOC, for sure, but confounded by design issues (faulty problems, too easy/too difficult assignments). The assumption that is most important to test is that engagement is a measure of learning. I’m sure there is a correlation, but is there causation? In any case, a far cry from determining if students are learning from their digital footprints.

      Going back to the topic of videos: the study of electrodermal activity (your link at the end) is very relevant—as you can see, the only other activity that shows an equally flat brain activity to sitting in lectures is watching TV!

  9. Sally Burr

    I read your article with interest. I feel there is an accessibility issue with video too. Not everyone has wifi and this therefore limits access to learning materials, if resources are primarily video-based.

  10. Jack Koumi

    The arguments decrying use of video mainly concern “Talking Head” lecture capture.
    Here’s a thought:
    Video Formats exploiting the power of video (Not just Talking Head)
    1. physical models, constructed to represent objects or concepts
    2. animation/diagrammatic build-up/composite images
    3. presenter full screen or picture-in-picture or voice-over (narrating).
    4. presenter plus green screen
    5. two presenters
    6. on location (Experiential Domain)
    7. demonstration/dramatic enactment
    8. screencast (e.g. the teacher showing how to navigate on a website)
    9. tablet capture (NOTE. writing onto prepared slide better than Khan style, which is onto blank background.).

    BTW. If a video switches between two or more of these formats – which you have seen in my MOOC – then at each switch the viewer gets re-engaged. Hence longer videos can sustain viewers’ engagement if you vary the format.

    ICEM conference, Digital Universities in the MOOC Era: Redesigning Higher Education, 20-22 Sep 2017. Venue: Bay of Naples
    AND on 20 Sep, come to my Workshop: Achieving the Pedagogic Potential of Video – in MOOCs.
    The workshop is based on Parts 1 and 2 of my MOOC: What and How to Teach with Video, run on the EMMA platform in January 2017.
    In Part 1, the MOOC uses 42 video clips to exemplify 33 Powerful Teaching/Learning Roles in four domains: Cognitive, Experiential, Affective, Skills. In Part 2, a further 39 clips illustrate 30 Design Principles in 8 categories: Hook, Signpost, Engage, Activate, Sensitise, Elucidate, Reinforce, Consolidate.
    To date, there has never been any other course that meticulously covers these two fields. You can challenge this claim by coming to the workshop: detractors welcome!
    I’ll introduce and play some of the 12 MOOC videos and stop after each to ask and answer questions and to initiate discussion – mimicking the interactivity in the MOOC.
    In Part 1, you’ll will gain a robust understanding of the teaching/learning roles that video is potentially good at achieving, due to its distinctive presentational attributes. In Part 2, screenwriting in small groups, you’ll implement design principles that are essential to achieve the potential of video’s teaching/learning roles.
    For a taste of the Workshop, here’s a link to a DropBox folder containing 2 of the 12 MOOC videos plus 3 related handouts. https://www.dropbox.com/sh/3rg3t6i91ksoznn/AABjh0TozLaeoBp-ovC5Baa4a?dl=0
    L1 U1 is the first video in Lesson 1 of the MOOC. Handout 1 summarises Lesson 1. L2 U1 is the first video in Lesson 2. Handout 2 summarises Lesson 2. Handout 3 describes the Screenwriting Assignment.
    The Licence for use of the above videos is
    CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs)
    The terms of this licence, are here https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

  11. Dr. Talaat Refaat

    “Students need to engage with the concepts in various ways, interact with ideas and problems, work through a process of “digestion” of the learning material.” I agree with this concept, I believe that watching videos in the learning process have to be a part of the complete learning process and not the only approach especially in the sophisticated courses. The more the effort done by the learner, the more thoroughly understanding of the course material and the more capabilities of retrieving information and main concepts of course material.

  12. Dr. Talaat Refaat

    Dear Lorena Barba! I just have a simple note, the location of the questionnaire “MOOCs can provide a quality learning experience without videos” is too early within your article. In my view, it has to be at the end of the article to let the responders having your complete view.
    In my case, I’ve voted Agree, when finishing with reading the whole topic my tendency is to vote Strongly Agree.


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