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Educational Video Formats: Style Advice from Knewton’s Video Team

Posted in Knerds on September 12, 2012 by

This post was co-written by Jess Nepom

There has been a lot of talk lately about creating educational videos for your students, whether you mean to use them in class, on the web, or both. Fewer people really talk about the different options for the format of your video — by which I don’t mean the technical file format, but rather the actual style of what will be on the screen. Should you use an on-camera teacher? Animation? Screencasts? You have lots of style choices when you’re making educational videos.

At Knewton we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make videos that are engaging and effective, but can still be produced in a manageable and scalable way. If you want to create some educational videos but don’t know where to start, here are some elements to consider:

1. Screencasts and slideshows

Slideshows can be exported to a series of images and then narrated by a teacher — an easy, versatile option. All you need is a mic and presentation software. Even better, although you’ll need additional software (for example, Camtasia), is a “screencast” or a digital screen capture: a video of exactly what’s going on on your computer screen. With some programs, you can circle, underline, annotate, doodle on your slides — anything to illustrate what you’re saying and keep your students watching. As a benefit, teachers who are uncomfortable being on camera don’t need to be. No worrying about hair or wardrobe either! The downside is that since you can’t see the teacher in the video, the overall experience can be less engaging for the student, especially if the video is more than a few minutes long.

Tip: At Knewton, we particularly like using simple screencasts with voiceover to demonstrate brief solutions to single problems. As a plus for subjects like math, you can actually write out your solution and allow the students to easily follow along.

A screencast video with voiceover showing the teacher’s handwriting. We used a tablet computer, Powerpoint slides, and a stylus to create this video.

2. Teachers

Having an on-screen teacher is a great way to increase the human factor of a course that is largely online, and it can often increase a student’s engagement. On the other hand, being forced to watch a boring or awkward speaker may actually decrease a student’s interest, so teachers must be telegenic as well as knowledgeable.

You’ll also need to think about how much of the person to show. Is your teacher sitting down behind a desk? Standing at a podium? Can you only see the face and shoulders? Consider both the physical limitations of your space — how much can you light, and how much can you back up your camera? — and the natural motions of your teacher. A teacher standing up could seem awkward, or she may move and gesture more naturally than she would while sitting. A teacher behind a desk may feel more comfortable himself, but the video may be more boring for the students.

Tip: For Knewton’s longer videos (ex. mini-lectures in our Math Readiness courses), we often film one of our super-charismatic teachers using a green screen so that we can put their images in front of a screencast.

We filmed our teacher Jen in front of a green screen, then superimposed the screencast from the tablet she’s writing on behind her.

Tip: In the case of our On-Demand GMAT courses, which are much longer videos, we chose to use a two-teacher set-up, and have them sitting. This allowed us to have room for the large slides, and allowed the teachers to banter and play off each other while teaching. It’s a bit unconventional, but our students really responded to the natural, conversational feeling of the lessons.

In these videos, shown here in our custom video viewer application, two teachers sit side by side while walking through slides in a longer lecture.

3. Camera angle and number of cameras

Putting your teacher onscreen means that you have to come up with a way to deal with errors. Some will be small, but the longer the video, the more mistakes you’re bound to have! A single continuous take lessens the need for editing but might be tough to get perfect all in one go. On the other hand, if you use multiple camera angles or cut between a teacher and a full-screen slideshow or screencast, you’ll need more video resources (cameras, people to film, and people who know how to edit) but you’ll put less pressure on your teachers to be perfect all in one take.

4. Whiteboards and projectors

If you already have a classroom setup available, you can film your teacher in front of a whiteboard, or writing on an overhead projector. This is a nice, cost-effective way to have both a teacher and visual aids in your video. These set-ups are great if you want to replicate the traditional classroom, but don’t allow as much innovation over the classic lecture model. Even with an engaging teacher, your students will likely feel as though they’re in class, but with less accountability since it’s on a computer. Technically, these videos are also much harder to light appropriately — your teacher may be in the dark, or your projector or board might be washed-out and too bright. If you do use a whiteboard, avoid common mistakes: make sure your teacher’s writing is well-lit, large and clear!

An example of a whiteboard video. The text is hard to read and the colors look washed out, but it’s easy to make many videos in a short amount of time.

5. Animation and interactivity.

Some concepts — like surface area, or centripetal forces — might be best addressed by animation or interactive tutorials. Adding animation and interactivity to your course is a great idea, especially for kinesthetic learners. But you’ll need more software, and maybe even additional staff who know how to use it.

Choosing a format isn’t necessarily obvious or simple, but we hope we’ve given you some ideas to think about! Try out some sample videos in a couple of formats, to see which one feels easiest and most natural to you and the subject you’re teaching. Once you’ve chosen a format for your video, gotten your software and hardware ready, and prepared your lesson, you’re ready to start filming.

Good luck!