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5 Ways to Make Your Videos Binge-Worthy

Video doesn't need to be a passive medium. Here's how to keep students watching and make them feel like they have a stake in their own learning outcomes.

A faculty member at New York University's Stern School of Business entered Amanda Justice's office, apparently after binge-viewing Breaking Bad. "He asked me if we could end [his videos] with a cliff hanger," recalled the educational technologist. She remembered thinking, "This is an operations course. I don't really know off the top of my head how we could get Breaking Bad-level engagement and trauma into it."

On the other hand, that's just the kind of challenge Justice and her colleagues on Stern's Learning Science team within the W.R. Berkley Innovation Labs like to tackle. Maybe they wouldn't be dealing with an "insane meth problem at the end of the lecture," but they could certainly come up with new ways to engage students and make them care about the outcome of a given topic after a video is over.

As Justice and her colleagues, Kristen Sosulski and Ben Bowman, emphasized in a presentation at the recent OLC Innovate conference, if you find that you're pumping out videos like a factory product, it may be time to step back and reconsider how well your results really work for your students. "Rethinking the Video Lecture for Student Engagement" explored five areas where the Learning Science team pushes itself to try new approaches for producing videos that will make students feel like they have a stake in the learning experience.

1) Framing Questions

When developing a new project, the team doesn't work from the syllabus, preferring to start with the lecture. "Oftentimes when faculty start writing their scripts, it's not the most engaging piece of video. We approach it as a scripting process. And framing questions is one of the [structural] devices we use for that," said Bowman, associate director of the Learning Science group.

One practice they encourage, according to Justice: dumping questions with "black and white" answers and shifting to subversion of expectations by making the questions a "little more complicated" or presenting an example "that was counter-intuitive."

For example, when working with an instructor new to video, Justice realized that the faculty member was using the Socratic method in her lecture. "So we decided to keep that," she said. "We wanted to keep these questions in the video script but also make sure they were questions that didn't have obvious answers. The idea is that we're setting these students to have their expectations subverted. Maybe they could watch these videos and not feel like it was a very passive experience or that the lecture itself didn't have a lot of structure to it."

2) Use of Animation

Animation is already common in education videos, Justice suggested. "It's a great way to get around copyright issues," she said. Likewise, animations are totally customizable and talented grad students can be pressed into service during the summer to create them.

Justice and her team put the technique into practice with a five-video set about process flow in general and business process flow specifically. They wanted to take animation "to another level and use imagery and animation together to show processes — and then build upon that to show how that process can be applied to many different contexts and examples," explained Sosulski, director of the Learning Science group and a clinical associate professor of information, operations and management sciences within Stern.

Because the concepts in the videos tended to be complex, the goal was to come up with animations for the series that were "icon-based": the image of a building into which different kinds of raw materials entered and a variety of goods came out again, for example. By doing that, said Justice, the student facing a midterm could go back to this simple illustration that had been shown multiple times during those animations as a visual cue that would stick in the learner's mind. While the same metaphor was used throughout, the examples varied, enabling students to "look around in their real world and in their head put anything they can think of through that process — and think about an object becoming inventory and then going through some kind of process in the business."

3) Quizzing

Video quizzing, like animation, isn't new, acknowledged Sosulski. But the Learning Science group has pushed itself by thinking about creating "feedback loops" with that quizzing, not so much to make sure the students watch the video and answer the questions as to "use that information to make us better teachers."

The baseline for in-video quizzing is to edit the videos to add pauses and a "nice fade," said Justice, "so it felt like we were purposefully using these questions."

One tool the university licenses is Kaltura, a video lecture capture, production and distribution platform, which now includes a quizzing feature. Instructors can pop a quiz into the middle of a video, then continue the video after the student has answered it. The problem, Justice said, is that there are limitations with the feature, such as a ceiling of 140 characters. "Try writing a multiple-choice question that's meaningful for an accounting class in 140 characters," she mused. "It's difficult."

To overcome restrictions, the team has added its own layer to the quizzing functionality. For example, a slide pops up after a quiz question with a Kaltura-like design that mirrors what the answer should be. Some of the questions are "thoughtful," added Justice, to make sure the student doesn't simply "breeze past it if they got it right or wrong." The idea is to make sure students really "dive into the video quiz." The goal: to use the quiz not for recall but to "prompt synthesis."

Justice pointed out that the quizzes aren't graded. However, the responses do help the instructors and designers gauge where students are in the class. The video quizzes also provide basic statistics, and that information can be used by the professor in flipped classes, for instance, to know what concepts need better explanation in class the next day. Justice said that one faculty member in an online course would send an e-mail the next day, "recommending reading, recommending an additional exercise. That way we were able to close the loop and use the data to our best advantage."

4) Use of Experts

While the faculty member is, of course, the expert in any class, asserted Sosulski, "having diverse perspectives is really important — to offer different ways of thinking about problems." The Stern team has brought in outside experts for video "mini-lessons" to impart domain knowledge. As she explained, "We use them to demonstrate problem-solving and also to share their pitfalls [and tricks of the trade], or what we call their 'heuristic strategies.'"

The practice started, said Justice, when the group tackled the remake of a course called "Business Methods," which had been a two-day online session led by experts. "We decided to have these experts pop on screen for one to two minutes in a middle of a series of exercises and interactive prompts that we had for the design of the entire course." They would show up to deliver an expert tip pulled from their area of specialization.

"That allowed these people to share their nuggets of wisdom," she noted. "Where are your pain points? Where do you trip and fall? What mistakes have you made? What have you learned? If I had to walk out of this room right now and I had to remember one thing, what should it be?"

The experts were "really excited to share these tips," Justice said, because it used their "standing and expertise."

5) In-Video Prompts

This is an area that Sosulski called a "work in progress." The idea is to motivate students to reach for the next level of their learning through challenges. Open-ended prompts are attached to the video clips to "encourage engagement from the viewers," said Justice.

"Students are encouraged to take the ideas they've learned in the lecture so far and try to synthesize that and learn new information. We want them to fill in the blanks. We want to present them with incomplete problem sets and have them find the solutions — or maybe we want to end in a cliff hanger."

As an example, one video for a "Business and Society" course opened with a brief introduction from the professor, in which she previewed the subject of the video: Columbia's decades-long civil war and the four years of negotiations that finally ended it. At the end of the introduction, the viewer is told, "you will be asked to describe how government and business combined to end the stalemate," explained Justice. By getting a clue up front about what they're expected to pull from the video, students are given a reason to pay attention.

Frequently, achieving that structure calls for reorganizing the script, which is a multi-session, joint effort between the Learning Science staff and the faculty member. It starts with a listening session where the team hears the instructor's ideas, including what they love about media, whether it's a TV show or movie. Then the endeavor gets "more discrete," said Justice. "We start showing different examples of other videos that we feel employ best practices. And usually it takes three or four meetings to get to a place where we're happy with the script or we're at a place where we can start producing the content."

As a result of that deep work, the faculty member comes to understand the process of creating great videos "isn't just an assembly line, where you go into a studio and you shoot with no support. They see the energy and passion that we put into it." Just like Breaking Bad, except all your favorite characters survive.

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