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Creating interactive video for distance learning courses

Colleges and universities are increasingly embedding video in courses across the U.S.
University Business, August 2017
  • DEMONSTRATION STATION—Northwestern engineering professor Michael Peshkin figured out a way for an instructor to write and face the class at the same time. Via his Lightboard setup, students watching the captured lecture view the writing as if they’re standing on his side of the board. More than 50 other colleges and universities have now adopted the technology.
  • REMOTE LEARNING LEVERAGE—A virtual classroom powered by YouSeeU, now part of D2L’s Brightspace LMS, allows professors to conduct live, two-way discussions with classes, hold video-based training and conduct office hours. Video sessions can be automatically recorded and embedded into a course alongside other learning materials.

Teenagers spend more of their time watching YouTube video clips than television, according to research from DEFY Media. Yet when they arrive at college, they’re suddenly expected to sit in classrooms, concentrating on 50-minute lectures.

The disconnect between students’ digital lives and their classroom experience is narrowing as professors are increasingly embedding video in their courses—for both in-person and online learning.

Making the videos interactive—with quizzes, polls or problem sets that can reinforce the learning process—is the most effective approach, instructors say.


Sidebar: Interactive video content ideas and best practices


One factor driving the use of interactive video is research showing students get distracted when a lecture or presentation lasts more than 10 minutes, according to the book Brain Rules (Pear Press, 2008) by John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at Seattle Pacific University.

Applying that line of thought to learning videos, professors and instructional designers are developing videos that offer a new activity at least every 10 minutes.

“YouTube videos by and large are very short. Every few minutes, people are clicking on something else,” says Brian Klaas, senior technology officer at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.


Sidebar: Interactivity know-how


Likewise, students expect frequent shifts in activity while watching video recordings of lectures in flipped courses, he adds.  

“Interactivity becomes important so students can get the conception they are doing something,” says Klaas, who conducts a popular annual presentation at UBTech on creative applications of video instruction. “The more they are doing something, the more they are learning.”

Here are four key strategies for creating interactive video to engage—and ideally help retain—students.

1. Provide instant feedback.

This fall, students taking Introduction to Business at Metropolitan State University of Denver will learn about marketing, accounting and financial modeling by becoming the manager of a ski town in an online video project.

Over the course of 12 weeks, they’ll build a ski town using an interactive video created for the hybrid course. The video presents a series of business challenges, including how to market a new ski resort or whether you should lay off staff if the snowfall is late.

After students propose a solution to each problem, a narrator gives one of several automated responses programmed into the video.

“We are feedback-hungry as learners, and as a nation,” says Alex McDaniel, senior instructional designer and applications developer, who reformatted the course to include the interactive video project.

“We crave the immediate stimulation and feedback that this provides to make choices and to be able to understand the consequences of those choices.”

The narrator’s response influences students’ decisions as they work through the project.

The scenario-based format, which was developed by the school, allows students to apply the concepts they learn in class but also ensures they achieve the same learning outcomes, McDaniel says.

Another way to provide feedback is for the professor to record his or her response to a student project on video.

When students at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas upload a presentation in their online Business Communication course, they receive a videotaped critique of their PowerPoint from their professor, Marsha Bayless, department chair and professor of business communication.

“I could use a rubric and type in comments,” says Bayless, who uses D2L’s Brightspace LMS for the online course. “But I like using video because I get the best reaction from the students. They appreciate the fact that I took the time to watch their video and send comments back.”

2. Quiz and repeat.

College students who take daily quizzes improve their learning outcomes and class attendance, a team of psychology professors at The University of Texas at Austin found in recent research. One way the instructors have applied that finding is to test students every time they watch a video in an online or hybrid course.

Grad students in the physician assistant program at Butler University in Indiana, for example, take quizzes whenever they watch a video for their Clinical Procedures course. The two- or three-question assessments follow each 15-minute module in the video.

Assistant Professor Kali Vaness, who teaches the flipped class, added the quizzes to the video last spring because she felt the process of watching a recorded lecture for the class was not engaging enough. Many students commute to Butler from the suburbs surrounding Indianapolis.

“I didn’t want them to put the lecture on their phone and listen to it when they were driving. I wanted them to be more engaged with the material,” Vaness says.

Using software developed by Panopto, a video platform company, Vaness creates quizzes that alert students if one of their answers is wrong. The video, however, does not give the correct answers, so the students must attend the next class to learn which of their responses was wrong.

Klaas, who designs online courses at Johns Hopkins, says embedding quizzes in video presentations reinforces learning.

“The whole idea is to give them an opportunity to review it numerous times and test themselves on it until they have mastery of the subject.”

3. Change the instructor’s angle.

When students watch videos in online classes, they typically don’t see the professor delivering the lecture. At most, they may see a hand scribbling a problem on a piece of paper or on a white board.

A few years ago, Michael Peshkin, an engineering professor at Northwestern University, decided it was time to make the professor visible in online courses. He sought a way to make good-quality videos of chalkboard-style lectures.

That challenge resulted in creating a glass “chalkboard” that the instructor could write on with neon markers, and at the same time face the audience. A mirror reverses the image so that as the professor stands behind the glass pane, the writing appears correct for the viewer.

He called the technology  Lightboard and made it available through an open-source platform. More than 50 universities have since adopted it on their campuses.

One school that developed its own Lightboard studio was the University of Florida, which has since used it to record lectures for courses in physics and statistics.

“Students these days are used to very high-quality video from Hollywood,” says John Mocko, a senior teaching laboratory specialist who built the studio (an additional one, in the College of Business, is now under construction).

“They’re very sophisticated users of video, and if you give them an image of a hand over a piece of paper or a PowerPoint slide, you lower their interest immediately,” Mocko adds.

One faculty member who uses the Lightboard in online classes is John’s wife, Megan Mocko, a master lecturer of statistics. The glass chalkboard allows her not only to demonstrate complex statistical problems for the students but also to write directly on top of any PowerPoint image she uses.

“You get the image and the personality of the instructor with the discussion,” she says. “It’s not separated. If you just have a voice-over PowerPoint, you don’t get any facial expression or body language.”

Although she now teaches courses that don’t use the Lightboard, Mocko says she wants to redesign them so that they all use the technology. Students are encouraging it.

“They just like the fact that there’s an instructor in the image,” she says.

4. Change activities frequently.

Whatever strategy is used to make videos interactive, instructors agree the best way to engage students is to change the activities frequently. Harvard Business School, through its digital learning platform HBX, has developed a set of videos for online courses that switch to a new task every few minutes.

When students watch a three-minute segment of a video module, for example, it will pause and ask them to answer questions for a poll, listen to a problem at a business or take a quiz.

The idea is to imitate the atmosphere in a Harvard Business School classroom, where students need to be ready to participate in a discussion of the material.

“If we just posted long videos, we knew people would not be engaged,” says Ross Pearo, director of strategic alliances and initiatives for HBX. “We wanted to create them so that they were always forcing people to pay attention and think about what comes next.”

In addition, while watching the video, participants could be randomly selected to answer a “cold call” or written question about a business case study.

When the student responds by text, the answer can immediately be viewed by other classmates in a display similar to an Instagram post, and participants can then read, comment on and rate the response. Klaas sees the shorter modules on interactive videos as examples of microlectures.

“Hopefully we’ll see over the next couple of years this idea of microlectures becoming more common,” he says, “and an increasing number of faculty putting quizzes and richer assessments into their videos so students have better opportunities in which to learn.” 


Sherrie Negrea, a writer based in Ithaca, New York, is a frequent contributor to UB.

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