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Producing video learning objects for e-learning

By Peter J. Fadde / April 2008

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A number of trends have combined to make it attractive and feasible for teachers, trainers, and instructional designers to produce video learning objects—short video units as opposed to complete video programs. Video Learning Objects can be included in an online course or workshop or posted on a Content Management System (CMS) or a Learning Management System (LMS). The trend toward less expensive and easier to use video production tools has been going on for at least 10 years. It's become much less expensive to shoot and edit video, whether you are doing it yourself or contracting an internal or freelance video crew. More recently, advances in video compression and new video file formats such as Flash video have made it possible to routinely distribute full-motion, high-resolution video over the Internet.

A less obvious but equally important trend is a breaking down of the gatekeeper role of broadcast-quality production values. As the video sharing site YouTube dramatically shows, anybody can produce and publish videos and, even more amazingly, people—sometimes hundreds of thousands of people—will watch them. It turns out that sophisticated media-literate viewers do NOT demand high video production value. Instead they value authenticity. That is where you, as an instructor and producer, have an advantage over a professional video producer. Instructor-produced videos may be less polished, but they are likely to be more authentic. Furthermore, you can customize video learning objects that you produce to work effectively with your learners, learning objectives, and learning context.

What I am referring to as video learning objects are short, self-contained videos that are meaningful primarily in the context of other instructional materials and activities. This is in contrast to the traditional format of videos as complete, stand-alone instructional presentations—what we think of as educational or training videos. Examples of video learning objects include single-subject mini-lectures by subject-matter experts, interviews with practitioners in the field, demonstrations of procedures, and scenarios dramatizing soft skills-formats that I discuss further in this article.

Instructor as Video Producer

As an instructor wanting to incorporate video learning objects into an e-learning offering, you can sometimes locate appropriate video clips on the Internet or edit clips from existing video programs. In many cases, however, you may not be able to find just the right footage and you may not want to deal with copyright issues even if you do find appropriate video. The best option, then, is to produce your own video learning objects, which can be an intimidating prospect because it has long been assumed that video is expensive and difficult to produce and that audiences accustomed to television and movies demand broadcast-quality production value. Indeed, in the traditional model of corporate and educational video the production process is largely professionalized for just these reasons. In the professionalized video production model the client supplies objectives and content sources, and then gets out of the media professionals' way until time for approval sign off. Too often, though, the professionalized model results in videos that cover the topic but somehow miss the mark—in great part because the professionalized video production process values form over content. That emphasis can be reversed by having teachers, trainers, and instructional designers assume the active role of producer rather than the passive role of client in creating video learning objects.

Production Value of Video Learning Objects

A central question is how much production value is necessary for instructor-produced video learning objects. While it is tempting to interpret the YouTube phenomenon as supporting an "anything goes" approach to video for the Internet, consider that all learners—traditional as well as Generation Next—view videos through a lens of long-established aesthetic conventions for video quality. Aesthetics of video framing and shot sequencing form the grammar of video, and violations of video grammar abuse viewers' eyes as surely as poor spoken grammar abuses our ears. A viewer may not articulate that an on-camera presenter, who is framed with his or her head in the dead center of the screen, is in violation of the "rule of thirds." Instead the viewer may think, "that video isn't professional" or, even worse (much worse), "that speaker isn't credible." That's why I advise contracting a video production crew. Talented folks who have technical and aesthetic knowledge of video production are available through internal corporate and institutional media departments or can be contracted on a freelance basis. Let them handle the shooting and editing while you assume the role of video producer.

Being a video producer means conceiving a format for the video learning object based on how you intend to use it instructionally. It means arranging for a subject-matter expert (SME, which can be yourself) and perhaps a shooting location. It means communicating your vision and objectives to the on-camera SME as well as to the video production crew. You don't need to be a skilled videographer or editor to be a video producer. You do need to understand and appreciate the video production process and to provide your crew with the appropriate time, budget, and direction to produce the results you want. Unlike the passive client role, as the producer you are intimately involved on-set during shooting. You communicate with the SME while the crew sets lights. You communicate with the "civilians" in the office that you've claimed as a shooting location when the video lights kick off the circuit breaker that powers the copy machine. The producer also supplies bagels and coffee for the crew…and perhaps the office workers as well. Most importantly, as the instructor and producer, you make sure that what is being recorded to video matches your instructional need.

Formats for Video Learning Objects

The key to producing a video learning object is choosing or creating a format. Consider the United Parcel Service "whiteboard" television ad campaign. Ostensibly, the ads simply show a teacher/trainer illustrating his lecture at the whiteboard—albeit with extraordinary drawing talent. It is actually a distinct format as the spots all feature the same music lead-in and start with "whiteboard guy" stepping to the partially illustrated whiteboard and announcing the topic du jour: "OK, UPS delivery intercept." With modest production values, consistent format elements, and a bit of a gimmick, UPS created a set of video learning objects that give their "learners" a quick and engaging overview of a variety of topics and then direct the audience to more detailed content on the UPS website. Video learning objects do exactly this, use video for what it is good at—attracting attention, personal contact, an explaining voice—then reference other content "objects" for details that video is not suited to conveying. Below are four formats to consider in producing video learning objects.

Mini-Lecture Format

A video lecture can be more than a teacher or trainer talking into a webcam. To work as learning objects video lectures should be short, single-themed mini-lectures with a distinct format. A good example is provided by the "Real Time Minutes" produced by Jonathan Finkelstein, who wrote the book Learning in Real Time and teaches seminars on conducting synchronous online instruction. Each of the "Minutes," which are actually two to three minutes long, uses an illustration or an analogy-suggested by the setting of the video—as an introduction to various content unit themes. In "Real Time Minute #13," Mr. Finkelstein is shot standing in a snow-covered setting while commenting on giving online learners permission to "mess up the snow"—that is, to mark up an online whiteboard or throw text onto a wiki. The webisodes are relaxed and informal while at the same time being tightly formatted with consistent lead-in music and title slide—which becomes the thumbnail representation of the video on a CMS or LMS.

Interview Format

A video format that is commonly used in television but under-used in educational and training videos is the interview. Interviews are a good way to collect content without scripting and they lend themselves to being partitioned into discrete subjects or comments. For example, a number of practitioners responding to a single question can be edited together into a single video. Interviewees should be shot talking to the producer, who should be seated next to the camera, rather than talking directly into the camera—which is a difficult skill for non-professionals. Ideally, the interviewees should be mic'ed with a lavaliere (tie clasp) microphone, although the camera mic may suffice if the camera is placed no more than three feet from the interviewee. If a number of people are being interviewed, some of them should be shot talking to the left of the camera and some talking to the right. The videographer should pay attention to the background for the interviews so that it adds context but not distraction. The producer should concentrate on getting interesting and usable comments from interviewees.

While the interview format features the much-derided "talking head," note that "60 Minutes" has been a consistent ratings winner for years showing nothing but interview segments. It can be an exceptionally compelling format. Instructors are well served to study interview programs. Try watching "60 Minutes" with the sound down. Notice where the interviewees are looking and the background behind them. Notice the framing with the interviewees' eyes a third of the way up the screen rather than in the middle (rule of thirds). Notice how close up the framing is. If television is called the close-up medium then video-on-Internet should be called the extreme close-up medium. Online video resolution, reflected in the size of the video window, is valuable real estate, so I recommend filling the frame with the image of the speaker, occasionally pushing in even closer for dramatic effect.

Demonstration Format

For demonstrations, limit the video learning object to presenting the procedural portion and not the explanatory portion—"the show" rather than "the tell." More detailed explanations can be handled by an accompanying text document. Generally, the camera should be on a tripod. Video compression software digitally processes movement in the video frame, so it is better to keep the camera steady and to cut to close up shots rather than zoom to the close up. The less camera movement there is the less video compression is required, making for smoother Internet playback. On the other hand, a hand-held camera can give the viewer a compelling point-of-view look. That staple of demonstration video, the cooking show, typically features one camera on a tripod shooting the wide shot of the chef and a hand-held camera shooting slice-and-dice close ups. Producing video learning objects for online use requires balancing such format and technical considerations. Since learners using mobile devices with small low-resolution screens are increasingly accessing procedural video demonstrations at the point of performance, it's advisable to keep demonstration videos short, simple, and shot close up.

Scenario Format

Video can effectively depict soft skills situations, such as ethics and sexual harassment. Videotaping real people role-playing scenarios in real settings can produce realistic video scenarios. Although the production of dramatic scenes can get fairly elaborate with multiple camera angles, it can also be done with low production values—which can actually increase the sense of authenticity. While most real people don't act well reading from a script, many people can role-play convincingly—providing the authenticity that professionally scripted, acted, and produced educational and training videos often lack. Scenario videos should each be about the same length and have consistent format elements such as title and lead in music.

Along with the video format you want to have a clear instructional format. Perhaps each scenario presents an initial situation and then has an embedded prompt for learners to discuss the applicable principles and potential outcomes before returning to the video for the conclusion of the scenario. Online instructors may have learners comment on a scenario synchronously in a chat environment or asynchronously on a discussion forum after viewing the scenarios. The scenarios can be used at the beginning of a unit to convince resistive learners that soft skills like ethics and sexual harassment are less straightforward then most learners assume they are. The scenarios can also be used by learners to practice applying principles and concepts learned in content modules or readings. Or the scenarios can be used for assessment at the end of a unit.

The essence of the learning object approach is that the videos can be used in different ways during different phases of instruction and, further, that different instructors may be able to use the videos in different courses. The extent to which you anticipate a video learning object being used repeatedly or widely enters into your producer's thought process in determining the appropriate level of production value to put into the video and also the degree to which the video is customized to your particular instructional use. Wider use justifies higher production value, such as using three-point lighting in shooting an interview, but also dictates less customized formatting in order to facilitate wider use.

Learner Control Options

Along with offering instructors options for using them, video learning objects should also offer use options for individual learners. For instance, a video learning object should usually be displayed in a video playback window with play/pause/rewind/fast-forward controls. Since videos can't be indexed or scanned by learners as readily as text can be, you can help the learner find a particular section of a video by providing on-screen subtitles with sub-headings or main points. Downloadable transcripts of video learning objects are also appreciated by hearing impaired learners, second-language learners, and multitasking learners distracted by phone calls and e-mail while watching the video online.


As teachers, trainers, and instructional designers we should embrace the new video-on-Internet capabilities to use video more creatively, effectively, and efficiently than ever before. We can learn from YouTube to keep videos short (2-5 minutes) and to make them authentic. From "60 Minutes" we can learn the power of a properly presented "talking head." We can analyze television formats that have potential as formats for video learning objects, like the UPS ads and the variety of cable TV shows demonstrating cooking, home improvement, and car customization.

By taking charge of producing their own video learning objects teachers, trainers, and instructional designers can insure that the videos are customized for their audience and objectives. Assuming the role of video producer doesn't require technical skills as much as it requires a vision of how a video learning object can be used in instruction and the confidence to produce it yourself.

About the Author

Dr. Fadde was a corporate video producer for 20 years before becoming an assistant professor of Instructional Technology and Instructional Design at Southern Illinois University. Dr. Fadde has taught video production in elementary, middle, and high school classes, public libraries, gifted-and-talented programs, community programs, graduate instructional design classes, and corporate workshops. He can be reached at [email protected].


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