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Evolution of a Video-Learning Object Format

By Peter J. Fadde / March 2009

TYPE: EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES
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In a previous article for eLearn Magazine I emphasized the value of creating an identifiable format for video-learning objects. Developing such a format requires an investment of time and creativity, yet the return-on-investment is significant as it allows a producer to "paint by numbers" when generating new episodes. In addition, viewers (or learners) know what to expect from each video-learning object-of key importance with video objects because they can't be perused in a glance. Learners are asked to blindly invest their time and attention in viewing a video-learning object and should be rewarded with a consistent, concise, and engaging video.

I noted four potential formats for video-learning objects in my previous article: mini-lecture, interview, demonstration, and dramatization. Here, I analyze a series of mini-lecture video-learning objects called "Real Time Minutes" (RTMs) produced by Jonathan Finkelstein, the creator/curator of Learning Times, an online community for teachers. RTMs are short (approximately two minute), thematic mini-lectures covering various aspects of synchronous online instruction. Finkelstein uses them in his instructional programs; they are also useable as stand-alone learning objects.

There are three aspects of RTMs that makes the series worth analyzing. One is that it is a good representation of the video-learning object approach. The videos are short, interesting, consistent, and usable in different ways. A second interesting aspect is that the RTM format is original rather than referencing an existing television or corporate video format. I call the RTM format a "video metaphor." The host delivers a mini-lecture built around a metaphor illustrated by the video background. For example, the host stands in front of a playground while delivering a mini-lecture about how the host of a synchronous e-learning event should explore the virtual classroom environment before conducting the event (See RTM #3 noted below).

A third aspect of RTMs is that all of the episodes are available online at the Learning in Real Time website, which enables us to trace the evolution of this particular video-learning object format. We can see that the video metaphor format didn't appear fully formed. Rather, the producer started with a core idea and fiddled with it through several episodes to form an identifiable format. More important, the producer recognized when the format had matured and stopped fiddling with it. That is when a producer begins to reap the rewards of developing a creative, sustainable, identifiable format. The RTM format not only makes production consistent and routine, but also inspires future episodes.

GartnerHype
RTM #13 - "Messing up the Snow"

RTM Format Analysis
Readers are encouraged to access the Learning in Real Time website and view RTM episodes described here. As you will see, these episodes are listed in chronological order; we will begin with the first episode-"#1-Dinner Party Lessons.". Not every RTM episode site is in the video metaphor, but the ones that are illustrate a distinct evolution of the format.

RTM video metaphor episodes are 5-10 MB in QuickTime (mp4) format, at 240x180 pixels resolution-a size and resolution that results in a smooth-streaming video. The video playback window is small, so the close-up framing of the host is appropriate. Indeed, if television is the close-up medium, then online video should be the extreme close-up medium. The 4x3 standard video aspect ratio is well-suited to "talking-head" video, although the video metaphor format would actually make meaningful use of 16x9 wide-screen aspect ratio in a way that few such videos do.

Each video starts with an RTM title graphic and theme music, which are important format elements. As noted earlier, the RTM's video metaphor format did not appear fully formed, but rather evolved through several episodes. The following analysis shows the evolution of the video metaphor format:

RTM #1. The metaphor for this mini-lecture is that the presenter of a synchronous online learning event must think of him or herself as a host in the way that Finkelstein's mother once hosted events in her home. Finkelstein speaks directly to the camera with a background of drapes. He could be in his mother's dining room, but more likely is using the drapes as a standard generic video background (remember community access TV?). The metaphorical theme of the mini-lecture is interesting, but the setting is not evocative. However, the seed of the video metaphor format is planted.

In RTM #3 the video metaphor becomes a more concrete video format element. While standing in front of a playground, Finkelstein encourages online hosts to "play around" on the virtual classroom site before conducting an online event. However, the camera angle is such that the playground isn't fully represented. We don't see any kids playing, which lessens the impact of the video metaphor but also eliminates any issue of needing to get signed release forms from people appearing in the background.

RTM #4 is set in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and is quite evocative, in part because of a dramatic up-angle camera framing. The viewer can see people exploring the exhibits, which is the metaphor for this RTM episode that encourages hosts of synchronous online events to create areas that learners can explore on their own. Interestingly, the video framing emphasizes the ceiling (which is quite magnificent) rather than the patrons or particular exhibits. The video metaphor is well served by the background framing as the viewer is not distracted by people moving behind the speaker or by particular exhibits. The background also suggests rather than illustrates the theme of the mini-lecture. This episode is the first full realization of the video metaphor format.

RTM #13 uses a very simple and evocative video metaphor as the host delivers a mini-lecture on encouraging participants in a synchronous online event to "mess up the snow" by writing or drawing something on the blank white board area or otherwise playfully exploring virtual meeting room features. The host delivers this mini-lecture while he is standing outside in a winter coat at what looks like a snow-covered college campus. Perhaps Finkelstein had the "snow" episode written just waiting for Mother Nature to deliver. Just as likely, he looked out his office window at the freshly fallen snow and was inspired to write the episode … and then record it before people really did mess it up.

RTM Production Notes
This analysis of RTM episodes touches on several video production elements, such as creative framing. Other production elements are also notable: RTM videos appear to be self-shot. The LCD screen on most camcorders can be flipped so the host/producer can see himself. Indeed, the host can turn on the camcorder and position himself to deliver the mini-lecture. The host can check and adjust his position on the flip screen to get the desired framing. The zoom setting should be wide with the host standing as close to the camera as possible without getting a fish-eye look. This will allow the host to fill the screen and also stay close enough to the camera so the built-in microphone can record decent audio without the need for an auxiliary mic.

The RTM mini-lectures are delivered straight through and not edited except to add a title slide, theme music, and a fade at the end. Although appearing simple, each RTM is a carefully composed mini-lecture. The host doesn't read the lecture but rather "talks" it. This provides the best of both composition and spontaneity. The host's delivery isn't perfect, in fact the host probably needed numerous takes to get a keeper. RTMs are, in fact, performances; but it is an easy performance because the host is playing himself and his enthusiasm for the subject is genuine. This sense of performance is part of what makes RTM a format rather than just a video clip. It respects the audience by giving us a concise, consistent, and creative video.

The use of backgrounds to enliven a video is certainly not new as television news reporters are regularly sent around the world to stand in front of bombed-out buildings or flooded towns when their reports could just as well be delivered from a hotel lobby or a studio. But the video metaphor displayed in RTMs is more than just a backdrop. It's not quite like anything on broadcast television; it's more new media. And with this established format the producer can make one Minute after another.

In summary, Real Time Minutes are good examples of video-learning objects: short, self-produced, self-contained mini-lectures with just enough production value to provide identity without overwhelming the message. The video metaphor approach developed in the RTM series can be adapted to many e-learning contexts. Taking the time, effort, and creativity to develop consistent formats for video-learning objects can result in videos that are easy to produce and valuable to learners.



Comments

  • Tue, 27 Jul 2010
    Post by chandru

    This is a very helpful article. Being new to consulting but in the tech communication industry for 15 years - it's valuable feedback from someone who has 'been there'. I really like the table showing the different types of e-learning and potential clients. Fortunately, it seems that I'm on a good path, as I'd find a way to do what I'm doing even if I wasn't paid for it. Cheers.

  • Sat, 15 May 2010
    Post by Peter Fadde

    A few years removed, the links to "Real Time Minutes" remain intact and Mr. Finkelstein has added several more RTM episodes. In episodes #21, 22, and 23 RTM goes international with "video metaphors" set in the Australian outback and the beaches of Bora Bora. As with all RTM episodes, Mr. Finkelstein uses the background as a metaphor for various aspects of conducting live, online events. The content of RTM episodes, even older ones, is of increasing interest as synchronous online learning grows. The video format of RTM continues to evolve. RTM (#23) steps up the video production value by going to wide-screen aspect ratio and higher resolution. RTM #23 also introduces multiple locations with transitions between scenes and picture-in-picture effects. As with all video learning, enhancements such as wide-screen and high-definition mean bigger file sizes to download or stream. Increased production value also means more time and trouble to produce. In addition, the charm and comfort of the single-shot RTM format may be lessened with enhanced production value. Many eLearning producers are in the position of deciding whether extra video production value is worth the extra effort. Mr. Finkelstein's "Real Time Minutes" give us a unique opportunity to consider.

  • Fri, 26 Mar 2010
    Post by Nabonita Roy

    You need just one mouse click and here Harold shares it all&Splendid! Having my own schedule makes me more flexible and gets me paid for consulting challenges and further grow.

  • Sun, 07 Jun 2009
    Post by Jenise Cook

    Harold and I now "follow" each other on Twitter; never have met in person. Maybe at a 2009 conference! His articule is "spot on", and confirms other research on freelancing/consulting. Andrea Coutu''s comment is valid. The consultant needs to weigh carefully that specific relationship. Like Harold says, it could open new doors for you. Having an emergency savings fund in advance helps with the decision.

  • Tue, 24 Mar 2009
    Post by Peter Fadde

    The format you describe is like some of the great cuisines that evolved to make up for some deficiency (i.e., low quality meat). The interesting thing is that, even though video is no longer as much of an online limitation, the FORMAT you evolved as a video work-around is still great: less expensive, more flexible, lower bandwidth -- a super soft skills scenario format (you should write an eLearn article about it!).

  • Sun, 22 Mar 2009
    Post by Keith Tyler-Smith

    Hi Peter, I enjoyed your article on video production. I also come out of a video /television production background and have been working in the online learning field for about 5 years now. I''m very interested in soft skills scenario dramatisations and have made quite a few. I started out wanting to use video, but at the time didn''t have the resources, was constrained by bandwidth considerations and at the time the web-based video formats used today were not available. Instead I used still photographs with models (I started with actors, but later began using colleagues) who were in some sort of relational scene. I then post produced the audio with professional voice actors then assembled them in a html wrapper. The great advantage of this is that it is mch faster to produce, it''s way cheaper, requires fewer technical skills and as you''ll know, because the audio carries most of the affective information, it works as well as video without the time consuming and technical skills that video requires. The key is the script and the audio, the stills set a visual context and so long as the framing and composition conforms to the rules of film / video grammar it all works surprisingly well, losing little if anything that might be achieved with video. Best regards

  • Mon, 29 Sep 2008
    Post by Harold Jarche

    I agree, understanding your own skills and motivation is an important aspect to consider before leaping into consulting. It''s not for everyone.

  • Sun, 28 Sep 2008
    Post by Angela Stringfellow

    Thanks for a realistic view of consulting. You are right about the barriers of entry to the field being lower than ever. It''s not even necessary to set up a formal business entity any longer if you work through a portable employer of record. But I believe that you should take a realstic look at your skills and your internal motivation before jumping into consulting.

  • Mon, 28 Apr 2008
    Post by Carole McCulloch

    I enjoyed your pearls of wisdom about a growing field of expertise - the freelance consultant. We''re ahead of the game...

  • Wed, 23 Jan 2008
    Post by Andrea Coutu

    Great article, Harold. I''ve made a note about this article on my Become a Consultant blog (www.consultantjournal.com). I disagree about pro bono work and taking shares, though. You''re a business, not a charity.

  • Wed, 23 Jan 2008
    Post by Prakash Bebington

    Harold Jarche has done what few "consultants" do ... share knowledge for FREE. True to his words, I wish this "good karma ... can go a long way in bringing (him) more work." A pithy, pertinent article on the subject, indeed. Thank you, Harold, and God bless :)

  • Wed, 23 Jan 2008
    Post by Prakash Bebington

    Harold Jarche has done what few "consultants" do ... share knowledge for FREE. True to his words, I wish this "good karma ... can go a long way in bringing (him) more work." A pithy, pertinent article on the subject, indeed. Thank you, Harold, and God bless :)

  • Wed, 28 Nov 2007
    Post by Laura Jaffrey

    This is a very helpful article. Being new to consulting but in the tech communication industry for 15 years - it''s valuable feedback from someone who has ''been there''. I really like the table showing the different types of e-learning and potential clients. Fortunately, it seems that I''m on a good path, as I''d find a way to do what I''m doing even if I wasn''t paid for it. Cheers.

  • Fri, 23 Nov 2007
    Post by alexanderhayes

    This is a brilliant article coming from an equally brilliant blogger, consultant and all round inspiration for those ( like me ) who battle silo''s and who network the networks as often as possible :-)