The idea that massive open online courses (MOOCs) can greatly enhance learner engagement and retention in corporate training settings has been a recurrent theme on this blog. (If your department is still using traditional instructor-led seminars for most of your training, well, you probably know that in some cases, there is no place to go but up.) Obviously, it isn’t just the mere use of technology that leads to increased engagement, but rather the fact that the MOOC format allows you to design training courses to better correspond with how people learn. One of the most significant advantages MOOCs have over ILT and traditional elearning is in how the content is delivered.

Video is the primary means of content delivery in a MOOC. Because video plays such a central role, it has a huge impact on the learners’ experience. In terms of course design and development, video is the area where trainers may have the least experience, and it can also be the most expensive element to put together. For all of these reasons, it’s important to get video right.

Fortunately, we don’t have to guess at how to do that. For a study released last spring, researchers at MIT analyzed about 7 million video sessions from four different edX MOOCs to see how various features of videos affect learner engagement. Here is what they found, along with practical recommendations that can be drawn from the data:

Videos should be short.

The optimum video length for learner engagement can be as short as six minutes. After nine minutes engagement starts to fall off, and after about 20 minutes learners have probably started surfing the Internet or playing games on their phone. Our internal experience is that video length is best using the “TED Talk” approach, ideally making them 18 minutes or so.

Learners like a combination of talking head lecture and demonstration.

There are two basic types of videos used in MOOCs: lectures and demonstrations. Within these larger categories are recordings of live classroom lectures, talking head–style videos, narrated PowerPoint presentations, screencasts (i.e., onscreen tutorials demonstrating how to use a piece of software), and Khan Academy–style videos in which instructors talk while writing and drawing on a tablet device.

Learner engagement is highest for videos that combine approaches, for example, a talking head–style interspersed with PowerPoint slides. Most learners don’t like watching a video of a live classroom lecture at all.

Learners prefer lectures with a more informal feel.

This finding will probably come as a surprise: Learners engaged more with informal video lectures delivered by an instructor seated behind a desk than with videos produced in a multimillion dollar studio and featuring an instructor standing behind a podium. This pattern was especially apparent for longer videos, that is, those beyond 12 minutes. The researchers suggest that the more informal setting produced a “desirable trait [called] ‘personalization’—the student feeling that the video is being directed right at them, rather than at an unnamed crowd.”

There is likely both good news and bad news here for trainers. On the plus side, although MOOC videos should be of high quality, they don’t necessarily need to be produced in a professional recording studio. On the flip side, trainers who are accustomed to delivering traditional lectures may be less comfortable in a more informal setting.

For demonstrations, digital tablet drawings are more engaging than PowerPoint slides.

Learner engagement lasts one and a half to two times longer for demonstrations in which instructors talk while writing and drawing on a digital tablet than when they narrate static PowerPoint slides. This could be in part because human handwriting is more engaging than computer fonts, which is consistent with the idea that learners prefer informal lectures. It could also be that learners are more interested when something dynamic is happening on the screen.

A little enthusiasm goes a long way.

Lectures don’t need to be boring, and the best way for instructors to ensure that their students are engaged is to be engaged themselves. In general, learner engagement increases when instructors display energy and enthusiasm by speaking quickly. This is the opposite of what is recommended for in-person lectures, where speakers are often encouraged to slow down to allow for better comprehension. But remember: MOOC students can easily stop, rewind, and review if they miss something.

Learners watch lectures only once, but return frequently to tutorials.

On average, learners watch only two or three minutes of a tutorial, but they watch those two or three minutes multiple times. In contrast, they usually watch a lecture only once. Videos should be optimized depending on their type. Lectures should present the most important information clearly and in a way that is easy to understand the first time. Tutorials can be improved with tools like content tags and bookmarks that facilitate re-watching, for example, by using LectureScape, the enhanced video player I described in a previous article.

What this all adds up to is probably a lot more than you are accustomed to thinking about when preparing traditional training courses, which explains why many companies are choosing to license third-party MOOCs rather than develop the courses themselves.

For organizations that do decide to create their own MOOCs, these results demonstrate the importance of proper planning. Here is a quick guide to putting the recommendations from this research into action:

  • Chunk your content into pieces as short as possible.
  • Consider where and how you can interject slides and demonstrations into your lectures.
  • Use live tablet drawings rather than static PowerPoint slides to illustrate key ideas.
  • Provide learners with tools to review information.
  • Invest post-production time to splice together different content types and edit out pauses and other things that slow the video down.
  • Be excited about what you are teaching.

You don’t need a full movie studio and video editing team to create great educational content, but as you can see, simply winging it won’t do either. Contact me for more tips and strategies for how to make your MOOC videos maximally engaging for your learners.

Copyright 2014 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– Being a big believer in Technology Enabled Learning, Bryant seeks to create awareness, motivate adoption and engage organizations and people in the changing business of education. Bryant is a entrepreneur, trainer, and strategic training adviser for many organizations. Bryant’s business career has been based on his results-oriented style of empowering the individual.

Learn more about Bryant at LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/bryantnielson

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Bryant Nielson is heavily involved in the Corporate Training and Leadership and Talent space. He currently is the Managing Director for CapitalWave Inc and the training division, Financial Training Solutions. He brings a diverse corporate experience of organizational development, learning and talent development, and corporate training, that also includes personal coaching of top sales individuals and companies of all sizes. For the prior 4 years, Bryant was the Managing Director and Leadership and Talent Manager for Lengthen Your Stride! LLC. In this position, Nielson was the developer of all of the courses for MortgageMae University (MMU), the Realtor Development Center (RDC), and of Lengthen Your Stride! (LYS). In that position, he developed material, refined over many years of use and active training, and condensed the coursework and training to be high impact, natural learning, and comprehensive. Bryant has over 27 years of Senior Management experience encompasses running his own Training and mortgage firm, in New York City. He strongly believes that the corporate training is not to be static but should 'engage and inspire' students to greater productivity and performance.