March 24, 2017

MIT and German research on the [appalling] use of video in xMOOCs

Demonstration is one of the 18 video production styles from a Coursera course “Mechanics: Motion, Forces, Energy and Gravity, from Particles to Planets” (UNSW Australia)

Demonstration is one of the 18 video production styles from a Coursera course “Mechanics: Motion,
Forces, Energy and Gravity, from Particles to Planets” (UNSW Australia)

Hansch, A. et al. (2015) Video and Online Learning: Critical Reflections and Findings From the Field Berlin DE: Alexander von Humbolt Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft

The study

This exploratory study examines video as an instructional medium and investigates the following research questions:

  • How is video designed, produced, and used in online learning contexts, specifically with regard to pedagogy and cost?
  • What are the benefits and limitations of standardizing the video production process?

Findings are based on a literature review, our observation of online courses, and the results of 12 semi-structured interviews with practitioners in the field of educational video production

We reviewed a variety of different course and video formats offered on six major platforms: Coursera, edX, Udacity, iversity, FutureLearn, and Khan Academy.


(My summary, the authors’ words in italics)

1. We found documentation on the use of video as an instructional tool for online learning to be a notably underexplored field. To date, little consideration has been given to the pedagogical affordances of video, what constitutes an effective learning video, and what learning situations the medium of video is best suited for.

2. On the whole, we found that video is the main method of content delivery in nearly all MOOCs. MOOC videos tend to be structured as short pieces of content, often separated by assessment questions. This seems to be one of the few best practices that is widely accepted within the field.

3. We found two video production styles that are most commonly used: (1) the talking head style, where the instructor is recorded lecturing into the camera, and (2) the tablet capture with voiceover style (e.g. Khan Academy style).

4. It appears that the use of video in online learning is taken for granted, and there is often not enough consideration given to whether or not video is the right medium to accomplish a MOOC’s pedagogical goals.

5. Video tends to be the most expensive part of MOOC production. There is a tendency for institutions to opt for a professional, studio-style setup when producing video… but.. there is little to no research showing the relevance of production value for learning.

6. More research is needed on how people learn from video.


1. Think twice before using video….it seems problematic that online learning pedagogy is concentrated so heavily in this medium. Hence, we want to discourage the use of video in online learning simply because there is an expectation for it, and rather encourage online learning producers and providers to question video’s extensive use at the expense of other pedagogical alternatives

2. Make the best use of video as a medium…Based on our findings, we have compiled an overview of the medium of video’s affordances for online learning. [Nine ‘affordances’ of video are recommended]


First, this is not really about video in online learning, but video in xMOOCs, which is just one, fairly esoteric use of video in online learning. Nevertheless, since xMOOCs are in widespread use, it is still a valid and important area of research.

Unfortunately, though, the authors’ literature search was barely adequate. I will forgive the failure to discuss the 20 years of research on television and video at the UK Open University, or the research done on the educational effects of television from Sesame Street, but although the authors of this paper include a reference to his book in the bibliography, the failure in the main text to recognise properly Richard Mayer’s contribution to what we know about using video for teaching and learning is unforgivable, as is the authors’ conclusion that the use of video as an instructional tool for online learning is a notably underexplored field. Sorry, but its the authors who haven’t looked in the right places.

Secondly, it’s not that I disagree with their recommendations, it’s that what they are recommending has been known for a long time. More research is always useful, but first the existing research needs to be read, learned and applied.

Thirdly, this paper reinforces what many of us with experience in online learning and/or in the use of video in education have known all along: those designing xMOOCs have made the most egregious of errors in effective design through sheer ignorance of prior research in the area. Since those making these stupid mistakes in course design come from elite, research-based institutions, the sin of ignoring prior research is even more unforgivable. Once gain we have MIT, Stanford and Harvard and the other xMOOC providers having to use new research to rediscover the wheel through ignorance and arrogance.

Fourthly, the real value of this paper comes from the authors’ typology of video production styles. They offer a total of 18 possible production styles, with a short description and a set of questions to be asked about each. This alone makes the paper worth reading for anyone considering using video in online learning, although the authors fail to point out which of the production styles should be avoided, and which used, according to the research.

Lastly, what this paper really reinforces above all is that we should stop taking xMOOCs seriously. They are badly designed by amateurs who don’t know what they are doing. Let’s move on to more important issues in online learning.