Video instructions: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

I start an infographics MOOC this week run by the Knight Center, part of University of Texas. Part of the reason I’m doing the course is because of my newfound fascination with graphs, but I’m also doing it to see the different ways educators can run an entirely online course.

As part of the preliminary activities, we were given a series of video tutorials on how to use Adobe Illustrator. I had a case of pre-course keenness and patiently went through the first few tutorials while my wife sat bored behind me. You may be familiar with this sort of tutorial. There’s a view of a cursor moving round on a computer screen and a voice explaining what they’re doing. In some ways, it’s good, because you can follow along and do the same thing yourself on your own computer.  The worst thing, however, is the demands it puts on your patience, not to mention your marriage.

Internet video has made me incredibly impatient. There’s a world of choice out there. People in my Twitter stream are demanding I watch Video X. Videos Y and Z are waiting to be watched on Google Reader and Reddit. I’m a busy man. I’ve learned to tell within about thirty seconds if a video is worth watching. If I get bored, I pass on to the next one.

This is all very well if you’re watching videos of cats falling into a toilet. But if you’re a serious student it’s a disastrous attitude to detect in yourself. A student needs to be able to tolerate a bit of boredom for the greater good.

cat falls in toilet

Learning via internet video seems to require at least one of two things:

1. An interesting video

2. A student with self-control

An examples of the first might be a TED talk. I’ve learned some good stuff from TED talks and have been happy to sit down for such epic periods as twenty minutes just listening to someone give a lecture. Reason? The talks are interesting.

Videos which teach me how to use a piece of software are unlikely to be interesting in the same way. But I will watch them if I think I’m going to get something out of it.

Herein lies the problem. MOOCs are typically criticised because they offer a “one size fits all” approach to education. 100,000 people doing a course at the same time sounds great until you realise those people are going to sit at different places along the ability spectrum. This isn’t a problem with reading, as you can skim read until you find the bits you don’t know. It is a problem with video. You sit through the parts you know already, not knowing if something new is going to come up later.

One solution might be to put a transcript of the video, which you can skim read before you watch. This might work sometimes, but it would be time-consuming. It could well end up making the video redundant. In the case of instructional videos, maybe this a good thing.

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