The use of educational videos in schools and universities was on the rise before COVID-19. Now, with continuing disruption by the pandemic, more educators are developing educational videos to support student learning. Similarly, students are increasingly looking to places like YouTube for educational content.
Intuitively, we might think a video’s production quality is what matters – fancy recording equipment, a professional studio environment and flawless editing. While these “bells and whistles” can be attractive, some of the most successful educational YouTube channels actually use very simple production styles. For example, Khan Academy records handwriting on a tablet screen. Eddie Woo of WooTube often films his high school classroom teaching.
Research confirms production quality isn’t as critical as we might at first think. Production quality ranks behind perceived learning gains, educators’ delivery style and video length as reasons for liking educational videos. Research even shows we are more inclined to watch educational videos filmed in an informal setting than big-budget studio productions!
So what makes an educational video effective?
Our perceptions of how easy a technology is to use and its usefulness determine whether we will engage. If we think a video is too hard to use or unhelpful, we won’t bother with it! This is known as the “Technology Acceptance Model”.
I was interested in using this model to understand what specific factors made educational videos effective. I developed videos that demonstrated solutions to maths-based problems for university engineering subjects. These videos were designed as an optional supplement to lectures and tutorials.
To understand what influenced engagement, I asked students what they liked about the videos. I also asked what could be improved.
I then isolated recurring themes to identify the most important factors. This is what I found.
Influences on ease of use
A key advantage of videos over face-to-face learning is access – students can watch videos at a time and place of their choice. This has been especially critical during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
The platform used to distribute videos (such as YouTube) plays a role through system reliability and user-friendliness. Features like playlists and push notifications can also be considered for enhancing ease of access.
Videos enable students to personalise and self-pace their learning through content selection and video controls. Unlike face-to-face classes, students can conveniently pause a video to consider posed questions. Students can then restart when ready to get feedback on their responses. Students can also rewatch challenging sections while skipping over easy parts.
I found these learning strategies were extremely popular. In my research, 90% of students independently solved the problems I presented.
Students appreciate being able to find information easily. Concise and well-labelled videos support navigation to relevant content in a timely manner. Time stamps can also be used to communicate where in a video specific aspects are covered.
Instructional design and production
When educators use a conversational delivery style it creates a social partnership, which encourages learners to try harder to understand their educator. This improves learning through videos. As this personal approach aligns well with an informal environment, it can explain why students embrace simple production styles.
Influences on usefulness
Verbal explanations can efficiently communicate thinking processes, highlight misconceptions and relate ideas together. This enables students to readily develop understanding, which is strongly tied to their academic performance.
For these reasons, students like narration in videos, which goes well beyond what static documents like textbooks offer. In my research, students found videos particularly useful when they felt the narration explicitly and thoroughly communicated the logic behind solution processes.
Providing video content that gradually increases in difficulty supports students to develop skills without becoming overwhelmed. This is important because students who feel out of their depth are at risk of disengaging.
In my research, many students wanted to be extended by increasingly challenging problems. Students also varied the “degree of difficulty” when attempting questions by only watching video segments to prompt when stuck or to verify their solution.
As assessment is a core driver of learning, content needs to be closely aligned with assessment for students to consider videos useful. Consistent with this, my research shows students are most likely to engage with videos to support their assessment attempts.
COVID-19 has meant educators have produced a lot of videos this year. Given the time pressures, these often weren’t high-quality productions, but students were still able to learn a great deal.
As we return to a new “normal”, educators looking to enhance their video resources should remember what students value most – easy-to-use informal videos with clear explanations aligned to their needs.