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When Actors Replace Instructors as On-Camera Talent

If your school has been producing course videos the same way for years, it may be time to update your technique to make sure students are still watching. Purdue shares lessons learned from an unconventional approach.

actors as on-camera talent

Instructors have typically been the on-screen talent for the recorded lectures used in online courses. But when Purdue University began expanding the online certification courses in its Engineering Professional Education program, the design team came to a fundamental realization: Mundane 20- to 40-minute lecture videos of a "talking head" no longer provided a learning experience that professionals taking online courses would tolerate.

The Engineering Professional Education program provides non-credit online courses designed for "lifelong learners," led by instructors who come from the field. "Our students love them because they're so close to the content and they're using [what they teach] in their jobs," said Vickie Maris, former director of professional development programs who now is the graduate programs director in Purdue's Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. Still, student feedback suggested a desire for higher-quality videos in the online certification courses. As a result, Purdue has begun pulling away from the use of subject-matter experts (SMEs) for pre-recorded lectures, replacing them with professional actors instead. The result has been much happier students.

Vickie Maris, along with colleague Jun Fang, manager of instructional design, presented a session at the Online Learning Consortium's international conference in October on how to improve online learner focus and the learning experience with the use of on-camera talent and short-length lectures.

How It Works

The development of a new online program in project management provided Maris and her colleagues with the perfect opportunity to try the new approach to video creation. The team would use actors to perform lecture material on-camera, and shorten the lecture videos to under seven minutes each.

Maris sought bids from three production studios, including Purdue's own on-campus studio, and the university ultimately selected a location near Dallas, TX — several states away. The on-campus studio couldn't commit to the kinds of time blocks required for the project, Maris explained. If somebody "in a position of authority" needed to use the studio, the design team's work would be delayed. "If you're hiring professional talent and they're going to be there for [several] days, we couldn't risk them being bumped by something else," she said.

The Dallas studio provided links to the resumes and portfolios of several actors, and design team chose two to contract with for the videos. Why two? In case the videos need to be updated. "There's a chance we might not be able to get either one of these professionals back in the studio," said Maris. When the videos alternate between actors, the students get used to seeing a mix and won't be "shocked" if somebody new shows up.

While most professional actors are comfortable on camera, Maris stressed that it's important to find somebody who's a good fit for the project. In Purdue's case, one criterion was that the actor be able to use a teleprompter to read the scripts composed by the instructional designers. "Not all actors have that kind of experience," she said. Other criteria might include "their style, their looks, the sound of their voice or the languages they're able to speak."

The actors are filmed against a green screen, and the background, created by the studio's graphic designers, is edited in.

SME vs. Professional Actor

The benefits of using SMEs for recorded lectures are several: They have a thorough knowledge of the subject; students can trust the content; and there's a certain level of flexibility in adjusting the content as the need arises — they don't need to work so closely from a script.

However, there are challenges too, pointed out Maris. For one, instructors may not be comfortable being "immortalized" on camera. For another, if the instructor's style is boring, students won't watch the videos. Likewise, students may not be able to "relate to" the instructor. In one example, noted Maris, an instructor looked young, and students would comment on that in their feedback. It took the videos along with interaction with the instructor in the discussion forum, e-mails and online help sessions "for students to be convinced that he really is the expert."

In using actors, the obvious challenge was that they might not be "believable" if they mispronounce the jargon of the subject. In a Lean Six Sigma class, for example, DMAIC — for define-measure-analyze-improve-control — is pronounced "de-may-ick." "If our on-camera talent said, D-M-A-I-C, they would really sound like they didn't know what they were talking about," said Maris.

Overcoming that problem isn't hard; it's simply a matter of having somebody familiar with the subject in the studio during the recording to clear up any questions. Besides, Maris noted, union actors "are so professional." They would pick up a 40-page script, read a couple of pages to make sure the pacing sounded right and then check on the special terms that would surface. "They'd get a few things smoothed out and then we were off and running. I rarely had to have the director stop them to correct something."

For both SMEs and actors, cost is a factor. As Maris explained, a professional actor will charge the studio "union talent" rates. (An "on-camera narrator rate," according to SAG-AFTRA, the media professionals union, is between $891 and $1,056 for a first day of taping and $490 to $609 for each additional day.) However, the use of an SME can be pricey too. Maris said that one SME Purdue works with "charges a pretty hefty hourly rate. For me to have her in the studio at her hourly rate would be way more expensive than to hire the professional talent we hire."

Keep the Videos Topical

Maris offered several tips to others who may decide to go this route in creating videos.

First, keep them short. The latest videos in Purdue's online certification programs run no longer than seven minutes. Research has shown that adult learners "quit retaining information" after that much viewing time, said Maris. In order to achieve that length, videos focus on specific concepts learners are going to need to understand.

This approach has a second advantage: It's easier to update the courses since an individual video can be "plucked out" and replaced, noted Maris. Or a new topic video based on SME or student suggestions can be inserted wherever it's needed. Conversely, when data shows that students aren't using specific videos at all, or if students give feedback that a given topic isn't pertinent to the work environment, those videos are removed from the program.

To give the videos a shelf-life of "maybe a couple of years," noted Maris, the instructional designers take great care in how they write scripts. They avoid references to what year it is, political events or other details that could date the material.

Don't Let Production Costs Scare You

Initially, the Dallas studio Purdue worked with had put forth a bid amount equivalent to what it would charge for producing a 60-second commercial. "We couldn't pay that kind of price if we were doing 40 or 50 five-, six- or seven-minute lecture videos," Maris said. "But the studio was pretty enthralled with working with a Big 10 university and partnering with Purdue for this series of courses — and the potential of other online certification courses in the future. I was able to get them down quite a bit."

Her advice: Don't let initial price tags "scare you off." "If your course is something you can scale up and put many learners through, which is what we can do with these courses," she said, the expense will be worth it.

Actors Are Not Instructors

The actors never introduce themselves in the lecture videos, nor do their names appear on the screen. "They never state that they are the instructor," Maris explained. "They simply go right to the content."

That practice is in response to feedback from the faculty, who were concerned that students would feel like the school was pulling a "bait and switch." "We didn't want our students to feel like we weren't giving them the real thing," she noted.

Keep Testing the Results

During the development of the beta course, the design team had its SME record a couple of videos on camera using the same teleprompter setup. These lecture videos appeared within a module that included lecture videos recorded by the actors too. The feedback was conclusive: Students still preferred the actor. "We didn't say who was who," Maris remarked. "But they could tell right away. They were telling us, 'Go with the actors. We love our instructor, but we love what she does in the course content. Go with the actors because we love to watch them.' We got the feedback we were hoping for without directly soliciting it."

Maris said she believed the program is heading down the right track. "We have learned from student feedback that they're more likely to watch the shorter lectures and well produced videos." That feedback is proving valuable not only in development of the new course series, she added, "but it is also being used by the team in decisions about the updating of videos and other content delivery methods" in other courses and programs.

The Old Way

Vickie Maris, former director of professional development programs who now is the graduate programs director in Purdue's Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, described the traditional way Purdue's Engineering Professional Education program produces lecture videos:

After an initial brainstorming session and mapping out the various modules of the course, including figuring out what videos might be needed, the instructional design team develops an alpha version of the class. The designers record the subject-matter expert (SME) — a working professional from the field — giving her lecture as she teaches the course. The team uses Adobe Connect to capture the audio and the PowerPoint slides.

"That's a fairly simple way to get something on the ground and get running," said Maris. "Most of the SMEs we've worked with are comfortable creating voice over PowerPoint. That's an easy way for them to get their content out and for us to have some 'meat' to work with."

Those lectures are posted to the course sections in Blackboard Learn for students to access.

To try out new curriculum, the university offers the course in its alpha form for free to about 10 learners, said Maris. "In exchange for that free registration, they know up front that we're going to ask them at several points along the way for feedback."

Once the team revises the initial content based on the feedback received, it converts the lecture into a script that will be used for the on-camera version of the lectures. This forms a "beta" edition, which it delivers to about 20-25 students who take the class for a 50 percent registration discount in return for their feedback.

Since 2009, Purdue's practice has been to record the SME on camera in a studio for the beta release. The instructor would use his or her slides on a monitor as a form of teleprompter. Unfortunately, the monitor wasn't exactly in line with the camera, and student feedback could be harsh: "Watching her eyes scanning the teleprompter is quite off-putting and sophomoric," responded one student.

Also, in recent years, the students have increasingly found the 10- to 40-minute lectures too long to watch online.

And since the SME was essentially reading his or her notes, it was repetitive content. Students were either reading their workbooks or watching the videos, but rarely was a student using both learning tools.

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