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Teaching with Video

Content Lessons from Professional Educators

Teaching is a great way to create video content that's shareable and engaging. From product documentation to online courses, as an expert in your field, you probably have many things to teach. However, conveying information clearly is a skill set all its own, one that you might not have had as much practice with.

Luckily, there are other people out there whose expertise is education. I chatted with some expert video educators from Education Portal, Heatspring, Hootsuite University, Skillfeed, Skillshare, Udemy, and Whipple Hill to see what they've learned about teaching.

Know your audience

As you're creating videos, you should be aware of your audience. As Kirsten Bailey, director of Hootsuite University, succinctly put it, you should pay attention to "who they are, what level of knowledge they're at, and what they really struggle with." This awareness will allow you to better shape the goals of your video and provide examples that directly relate to your viewer. "Solid examples… are really important when it comes to reinforcing whatever it is that you're trying to teach," said Bailey.

As you create videos and see what resonates, you'll get to know your audience better and better. Here at Wistia, we find a visual human presence totally essential. On the other hand, Jessica Bayliss told me that Education Portal's students "found seeing a person on screen distracting." What works for your audience may be different from what works for someone else's, so adjust your videos accordingly.

In addition to considering your audience during the video creation process, think about setting context for the videos once they're live. "The biggest thing, I think, is to include the prerequisites, both what you need to know before you start the course and what software you need to have," said Aneri Shah, content and community coordinator at Skillfeed. This helps viewers easily figure out which videos suit their needs and skill level.

Keep it concise

I was amazed at how many of the different people I talked to (all of them, in fact) mentioned brevity as an essential quality of great learning videos. Aneri (Skillfeed) has noticed that "people watch the shorter videos over and over again." Similarly, Peter Baron, chief evangelist at private school software company Whipple Hill, mentioned that their goal is "to keep everything we shoot under 90 seconds."

Shorter videos are easy to digest on their own, and just as importantly, they allow viewers to easily self-navigate through your content and find what they're looking for more quickly:

"The shorter the video, the better. I look at a lot of different corporate, specifically enterprise, SAAS-based education videos, and a lot of the time they'll be 45 minutes long. That is so completely useless to the viewer. Sometimes, they already know the basics. They know how to set up the dashboard, they know how to schedule, what they're trying to figure out is how to do geolocation, and how are they supposed to find that in the middle of a 45-minute video? By delivering short, 1-to-3 minute videos, we see much higher engagement rates. With a video that's 45 minutes long, you're probably going to get about 23% engagement, but with our shorter videos, on average we see about 80% engagement."
Kirsten Bailey, Hootsuite U
"We make our videos bite-sized and modular. Each video is about 5-10 minutes long. By covering a single concept really well in each video, we create an efficient learning experience that allows students to self-navigate through a course based on their needs and goals."
Jessica Bayliss, Education Portal
"Making a higher number of digestible videos creates value for our students and allows them to better work at their own pace. We've also seen that students appreciate shorter, more concise lessons so we definitely keep an eye on video length."
Jesse Chorng, Skillshare

How can you make more concise videos?

"Good editing makes a big difference," said Alex Mozes, instructor liaison at Udemy, "Cutting the fluff and the mistakes creates a more concise learning experience, and keeps the attention of students." "Cutting the fluff" can happen at any point in your video process, from concepting (and narrowing down your topic) to scripting to post-production. An added benefit of creating more digestible video content, brought up by Chris Williams, CMO at Heatspring, is that it makes video assets easier to update later on.

If you already have longform videos and don't have time for a reshoot or re-edit, there are a few ways that you can provide a similar experience, such as video chaptering or searchable transcripts. (Read more about optimizing for longform content in a previous post.)

Planning matters

As easy as it might seem to jump in front of a camera and talk about your expertise, it's important to plan and spec out your video content. "It starts with storyboarding and planning," said Peter (Whipple Hill), "Before we even turn on the camera, we think long and hard about what we hope to achieve and show. Granted, when you start filming, especially on site, plans can change, but we’ve found the more prep we do, the better the result."

"Some people just turn a PowerPoint presentation into a course, and the audio's not very good, it's just slides, it's not interactive, and you don't get to know the instructor. That's the most basic form of an online course: someone taking their in-person course and saying, 'I want to put it online,'" said Aneri from Skillfeed. "The [instructors] who do it really well are the people who cater their course specifically to the online format," speccing out how they're going to teach each step to predict a viewer's pain points and lead them through a process smoothly.

Planning encompasses everything from viewing analytics from past videos to knowing your goals to writing and tweaking your script. At Wistia, we finalize our scripts with a table read.

Quality is essential

You don't need to spend thousands to make a video with a "professional" feel, but paying attention to certain details can make your videos much more trustworthy and engaging.

Skillfeed's Aneri gave us lots of solid tips: "What I've found really makes a difference is when the audio is really clear, and there's no background noise, and you can tell what they're saying." Much like good audio, a simple backdrop can be a major differentiator:

Sometimes it's effective when the instructors show themselves on camera, and sometimes it isn't. A lot of it depends on the instructor's communication method and surroundings. The less distractions there are in the background and the clearer the audio, the more engaged the students will be. Something like a backdrop or a basic, inexpensive mic can go a long way.
Aneri Shah, Skillfeed

(If you're wondering what kind of backdrop to use, we'd recommend Savage Paper's seamless background paper.)

Alex from Udemy also emphasized audio and backdrop for creating a video that feels like a production. In addition, he described how, with a little bit of planning, you can vary your shots to best convey the information included:

"The best learning video is often the one that takes advantage of several mediums in one video. For example, with technology courses, the "how-to" has to be shown as a screencast, but the "what" and "why" can be done in a video. Similarly, going from the video to a PowerPoint and back helps to break up the monotony of an educational video. All of this must, of course, be built on quality. Central to any good course is good audio, good lighting, good framing, and good background."
Alex Mozes, Udemy

Look at metrics that tie to your goals

We talked a lot about metrics back in October, examining what you can and can't measure to determine how your video is performing. One solid approach is setting goals and working backwards from there to decide which metrics to pay attention to. For Jesse Chorng, video producer at Skillshare, student projects were essential for measuring how useful a class actually was.

"We keep an eye on engagement rates to ensure that we're always above average. We also have a rating system for each class where students can offer feedback on the instruction, project guide, and video content. Finally, the final student projects also inform us about how much students have gained from taking the class."
Jesse Chorng, Skillshare

I love this approach because it's goal-oriented. Of course, analytics like view count and engagement are important, too, but they don't account for a situation where, for example, a student was already familiar with most of the course material and just needed to brush up on her skills. Heatspring, similarly, assesses video success by projects:

"The success of our courses is based on the number of students that successfully submit a capstone project to show that they've gained a new skill. We measure the success of the video based on the video's ability to give the students the information they need to complete the capstone project."
Chris Williams, Heatspring

Good supplementary content

For Udemy, supplementary content, such as "ebooks, quizzes, slide decks, PDFs, external links, even audio tracks for meditation in our yoga courses," have been a major differentiator from other sites, with the most effective supplements being the ones that "engage the student in an activity."

Skillshare's classes include a project guide alongside their videos to cater to different styles of learning: "Oftentimes it relays the same information, but with more specificity and detail. We've found that hands-on skills as well as screencaptures provide a better sense of workflow, while text and photos present exact measurements, settings, etc., much more clearly than videos sometimes can; the two work hand in hand." Aneri at Skillfeed brought up an example of an instructor who attached a full list of terms from his graphic design course: "I found that his list of terms was almost more useful than the course itself."

Quizzes are useful supplements for students who want to track how they're doing along the way: "The quiz is essential so that students can assess their mastery of the material," said Jessica (Education Portal). They can also be a helpful way for instructors to track progress. In November, Jeffrey Pomerantz, a UNC Chapel Hill professor who taught an online course about metadata, posted a report to help clarify the numbers behind the many news stories about the massive attrition rates of MOOCs. The Huffington Post summarized his findings:

"If you use the number of students who watched at least one video as your denominator, [course] completion percentages climb to 15 percent. And if you make the assumption that only students who complete at least one assignment (even a short quiz at the end of lesson 1) should be considered serious enrollees, his completion rate skyrockets to 48 percent."

Quizzes allow Pomerantz to track how many students are actively engaging with the course.

Passionate instructors

One of the benefits of using video instead of just text for an online course is its ability to inspire a feeling of human connection. But what qualities make for an excellent instructor? For Whipple Hill, Skillshare, and Heatspring, it's all about putting the people who are passionate about a topic on screen:

"When it comes to highlighting our software via video, we’ve worked hard to feature many voices. This approach has been a differentiator. Whatever the approach, our goal is not only showcase the software, but to let the viewer connect with WhippleHill on a human level."
Peter Baron, Whipple Hill
"We strive to make video lessons that feel personal so students have stronger connections to the teacher and subject. Our most effective videos demonstrate the passion our teachers have for different topics and in turn inspire our students."
Jesse Chorng, Skillshare
"When a true expert is free to produce their own content, they will produce exactly the content that they know the students need."
Chris Williams, Heatspring

It's much more interesting for an audience to connect with someone who genuinely cares about the topic than with a random actor.

The 30-Second Summary

Making videos to educate your audience but don't have time to read the whole post? Here are some things you should consider:

  • Know your audience: Learn what your audience struggles with and what they want to know more about and use it to inform your script. Set context around your video by mentioning clear prerequisites.
  • Keep it concise: Cut the fluff from your videos to keep the length manageable, and break down long content into digestible chunks so that viewers can self-navigate.
  • Planning matters: Spec out your video specifically for the online format, and prepare a script before shooting.
  • Quality is essential: You don't have to spend thousands of dollars on equipment, but good audio and a decent lo-fi studio setup with a backdrop can make your production feel much more professional.
  • Look at metrics that tie to your goals: Specific measurements like student projects can speak to the effectiveness of your teaching on an entirely different level than general analytics.
  • Good supplementary content: Supplementary materials, like quizzes, transcripts, ebooks, and PDFs, can be a differentiator for your course and help tailor to different learning styles.
  • Passionate instructors: Put someone who's actually an expert on screen, rather than hiring an actor.