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Video for Learning: An Evolution

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

“I’m a great presenter. I should work in training.” You’ve probably heard this statement a time or two. Or perhaps, “I’d be a great trainer because I’m a persuasive talker.”

Workplace learning professionals (WLPs) cringe when they hear comments like these.  Learning isn’t about talking persuasively or giving a fine presentation; learning is about creating understanding, ensuring retention, and enabling application.

But as much as we cringe when people underestimate the discipline, technique, and skill that goes into developing and delivering a traditional training program, do we also misjudge how much effort and skill is required for creating video for an effective learning program?

Creating video content that aids learning is not a matter of simply aiming a camera and pressing record.  Just as creating learning is not a matter of simply standing up and talking.

Educating is more than presenting.

I suggested last week [LINK TO LAST BLOG POST] that when it comes to video, we’re nearing the end of what I call the “novelty stage” of technology.  This stage is characterized by a blind excitement when people ask, “Where can I use this technology?” It comes before what I call the “professionalization stage,” which is characterized by questions such as “What is the best technology for my purpose?” and “How can I structure this better to optimize the learning?”

The novelty stage is common when we discover a smart new technology.  For example, at the end of the 90s, people were so excited by e-learning that some companies declared e-learning would replace all face-to-face courses.  Remember that? Then when PowerPoint catapulted onto the scene, people used every color, font, and kaleidoscopic transition imaginable before they realized that this was not effective.

Video is still at the novelty stage.  Many people use video simply because they can make it—and because it’s fun to make. But that’s about to change. In the next few years, it will be professionalized and become an essential part of a learning professional’s toolkit.

How do we professionalize video?

How do we professionalize the creation of learning video?  What knowledge do we need?  What new skills are required? 

Media grammar. The first step is for media grammar to become part of the basic knowledge of a learning professional. Media grammar is the set of rules media professionals follow in radio, television, and newspapers to create stories that are quick and easy to understand. 

Video grammar in particular has evolved from nearly a century of television broadcasting and cinema.  Today, it is a sophisticated guide that ensures the videos we shoot and edit are easy to understand.  We need to combine video grammar with learning principles to truly give video what it needs to make it an effective video tool.

Visual grammar. Visual grammar is based on the media mantra that content must be “quick and easy to understand.” Following the rules of visual grammar enables us to speed up comprehension. At the very least, learning professionals should know visual grammar for planning learning video such as:

  • shot sizes (how close or far away the action is from the camera and how it shapes the message)
  • camera position (where you place the camera in relation to the action and how it shapes the message)
  • camera angle (how you pivot the lens to the action and how it shapes the message)
  • camera moves (how you move the camera such as panning or zooming and how it shapes the message)
  • composition (how you position objects in the frame and how it shapes the message).

Of course there’s more to learn. But the better we understand the dynamics of these rules, the more we can manipulate pictures to communicate our exact message. 

Applying learning theory to video.

I studied for my first adult education degree back when I was still working full-time as a talk show host.  Friends were curious about why I was interested in education.  They’d ask, “What do media and education have in common?”

Much of what instructional designers do is the same as producers, writers, and presenters: 

  • We all break our topics down and re-order them to make them quicker and easier to understand. 
  • We all think about mental models or stories to package information so it’s easier to learn. 
  • We all learn the language of our audience to ensure cognitive load is reduced.

However, instructional designers do a few extra things, such as incorporating techniques that ensure memory retention and application.

Making video for learning should largely follow the process of instructional design:

  • Start with a learning objective. 
  • Break the topic down into chunks.  
  • Structure the sequence of the video so it flows logically. 
  • Create mental models.   
  • Include creative repetition to ensure reinforcement. 

By the way, good media follows a more intuitive but similar process: start with an “editorial” objective. 

Combining media grammar with learning principles.

With video, the language we use is pictures—not words.  This is where we need to understand visual grammar.  Understanding visual grammar explains why a video with one person talking non-stop, with no other shots, offers poor return on investment for learning.  As do videos that have followed no careful planning or instructional design process.

To professionalize learning video we need to synthesize the rules of both instructional design and visual grammar to be able to consistently deliver content that aids learning and is not left to chance.

Like you, I’m a trainer. So, I cringe when I hear people saying training is simply about standing up and talking. I also I cringe when I hear that video is just a matter of pressing record and hoping for the best. I know that’s not the recipe for effective learning video.

But as a trainer, I also see potential.  And I know that the novelty stage is merely one-step away from professionalization, which involves combining visual grammar with learning principles. It’s at this point that we will take video and make it an indispensible tool in our professional toolkit to help change people and organizations.  

About the Author
Jonathan Halls is an author, trainer, and coach. He wrote Rapid Video Development for Trainers (ATD Press, 2012) and was a contributing author to Speak More (River Grove Books, 2012) and the ATD Handbook: The Definitive Reference for Training & Development 2nd Edition (ATD Press, 2014). He is author of the ATD Infoline, “ Memory & Cognition in Learning” (ATD Press, 2014) and has written numerous articles for T&D magazine. Jonathan is an ATD BEST Awards reviewer and has sat on the advisory committees for the ASTD International Conference & Exposition and TechKnowledge.

The former BBC learning executive now runs workshops in media, communication, leadership, and creativity. He is on faculty at George Washington University and facilitates ATD’s Master Trainer Program ™ and ATD’s Rapid Video for Learning Professionals Certificate program. Jonathan has been training, speaking, and coaching for 25 years in more than 20 countries. He describes his work as “at the intersection of media, communication, learning, leadership, and innovation.”
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