Why there are so many video lectures in online learning, and why there probably shouldn’t be

The Internet promised us a revolution in learning. What we ended up with looks more like educational TV on small screens. Why is that? And how might we change it?

Source: https://news.uns.purdue.edu/images/2014/pt-DYK_MPATI2.jpg

In his 1995 science fiction novel Diamond Age, Neil Stephenson describes “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” a magical learning device that was designed to help children learn to think for themselves. The primer looked like an old-fashioned book, but it could tell interactive stories that would adapt to the learner’s surroundings. But not only that, the primer knew when a learner was sad or struggling and could provide motivation and support as needed. The stories it told were magical and playful, and they combined illustrations, rich media, and conversations with an actual human being, who would connect with the learner in real time.

Even in 1995, large parts of the technology that were needed to create such a primer seemed just around the corner. But somehow the promise of the digital primer never became a reality. Instead, we’ve ended up largely with an electronic version of the same old educational models that never worked all that well in the analog world. It’s time to question some of the assumptions underlying the use of technology for learning.

Over the past few years, a big trend in online learning has been to move lots of content and learning materials online in the form of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). While these courses cover a wide range of subjects and exist on a number of different platforms, one thing nearly all MOOCs have in common is a focus on delivering content to the learner through video. The majority of these videos look like traditional lectures chopped up into smaller chunks, in the style of a “talking head” (lecturer talks to the class) or “tablet capture” (lecturer writes on the blackboard while talking).

Examples of the “talking head” (left) and “tablet capture” (right) style lecture videos that are seen most frequently in MOOCs.

The choice of video is not obvious. MOOC videos are not cheap to produce. Routinely, video is the single most expensive item in a MOOC’s budget, in both time and money. And despite the relatively high cost of video production, there is scant research into the effectiveness of video as a pedagogical tool for MOOCs. What little research does exist is focused on engagement metrics (e.g., analysis of clickstream data and viewing statistics), which may or may not serve as an effective proxy for measuring learning. So why, then, are MOOCs so deeply invested in video?

Wanting to learn more, the MIT Media Lab’s Learning Over Education initiative began collaborating with researchers at The Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) in August 2014. We reviewed the available literature, interviewed experts in the field, and studied how video was being used in over 20 MOOCs. The full report, Video and Online Learning: Critical Reflections and Findings From the Field, is available through the Social Science Research Network (SSRN). Some of our more interesting findings and three recommendations for the field are below.


How did we end up with video lectures in the first place?

Source: http://echo360.com/sites/default/files/Large%20Lecture%20Hall.jpg

In their first iterations, MOOCs replicated the traditional and familiar pedagogical model of a university classroom: the lecture. Even though lectures are ineffective at promoting critical thinking, fostering deep understanding, and supporting the application of knowledge, they are a relatively straightforward way of translating course materials into a digital environment. With this in mind, it makes a lot of sense why the first MOOCs were little more than recordings of university classroom lectures made available cheaply online.

Because of this decision to transmit content via video lectures, MOOC teams needed to be equipped with production studios and staffed by people with backgrounds in film or television. Since then, MOOCs have continued to use video as their default medium of content transmission, or as one of our interviewees put it, “MOOC teams were built to make video. Now, they have to keep making video.”

Rather than thinking critically about the theories of learning embedded in this pedagogical format or taking the opportunity to iterate on the model by asking interesting questions about how people learn, MOOCs take the use of video as a given, rather than leveraging it as an intentional pedagogical tool. With this in mind, we come to our first recommendation:

  • Think Twice Before Using Video: Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to. Video should be used to support your learning goals, not the other way around. There are a number of other forms of media, such as podcasts and interactive animations, that remain under-explored as methods of achieving learning goals in online courses. Without a redirection of effort from the online learning community, we risk falling into a pedagogical rut and relying on video as the default medium of instruction.

What do we know about video for learning?

Source: http://www.governmentschools.det.nsw.edu.au/photogallery/album18/graphics/_ph_/asquith_ps_1960.jpg

As noted above, there is little research into the effectiveness of video as a pedagogical tool in MOOCs. What little research does exist often starts by asking, “Did people watch this video?” rather than, “What did people learn from watching this video?” While there is merit to understanding what kinds of videos people are more likely to watch, it’s problematic to conflate engagement with learning.

For instance, many experts assert that viewer engagement is maximized by chunked content and short (<6 minute) videos. In fact, this seems to be one of the few best practices that is widely accepted within the field. Yet, shorter videos also tend to present their content in a tight, concise manner. So while research might indicate that students prefer shorter videos, this may actually represent student preference for succinct content presentation, independent of video length, and independent of the actual learning that takes place. Given that students often wrongly report that they are learning from videos that are engaging and expository in nature, the focus on short, engaging content is highly problematic for the purported educational mission of MOOCs.

Yet, when used correctly, video can serve as a powerful teaching tool to take learners into new spaces they could not explore in person, to visually animate complex ideas, or add an experiential aspect to the content. Lecture-based videos not only ignore pedagogical limitations, but also underutilize a medium that has great potential for learning. Hence, our second recommendation:

  • Make the Best Use of Video as a Medium: If you do use video, take advantage of its strengths as a medium, and make deliberate design choices about what video production style to use. There are a number of things that video does well. These include building rapport among peers, going on virtual field trips, manipulating time and space, telling stories, motivating learners, showcasing historical footage, conducting demonstrations, and using visual juxtaposition.

Why is MOOC video so expensive?

Source: http://i4weather.net/itv/file64.jpg

Video production is a resource-intensive endeavor, requiring recording equipment; staff time to plan, shoot, and edit the material; and in many cases, a dedicated studio space. While many of our interviewees were not able to provide concrete cost figures, there was consensus that video production, in nearly all cases, is the most expensive component of creating a MOOC. Staff time was cited as the most costly piece of this process.

The videos we encountered during our research tended to copy professional, high production value television or film. While there was agreement that high-quality audio is absolutely indispensable, the importance of high production value was widely disputed by our interviewees. In fact, there is little to no substantive evidence to suggest that higher production values lead to superior learning outcomes. Thus, we arrive at our final recommendation:

  • Consider Lightweight and DIY Approaches: Consider producing online learning video using lightweight or DIY production tools and techniques, with an emphasis on media literacy for content experts. If content experts are comfortable with media tools, they will be able to do things themselves and likely be comfortable collaborating with and giving creative direction to their teams. Most smartphones and webcams nowadays are able to record in high definition, and there are many free online resources that make the processes of filming and editing accessible to non-professionals. We encourage an approach that makes use of existing resources and prioritizes learning and pedagogy over glossy, high-quality videos.

In the full report, we also discuss the need for more research on the effectiveness of video as a pedagogical tool, and highlight under-explored uses of the medium, such as live video.


It’s time for a critical reflection on the value of video for online learning. We hope this report will encourage experimentation with new media formats and approaches to learning in MOOCs.


Katherine McConachie, Researcher, MIT Media Lab, @kamcconachie

Philipp Schmidt, Director of Learning over Education, MIT Media Lab @schmidtphi