In Search of Scalable Video Support; or: "Would You Like that Instructional Design To Go?"

It's pretty easy these days to get a meal To Go. But how about learning?

Oh sure, we can download videos or ebooks. But that alone is no more learning than a turnip is a meal. A bit of cooking is needed to make the turnip edible (if then). And by itself a video or an ebook will no more make a student learn than a piece of chalk or a plain old paper-and-ink book.

In theory, we know a ton about learning.

  • Psychologists know stuff.
  • Instructional designers know stuff.
  • Teachers know stuff.

But how do we move it around? How do we get that knowledge from one place to another? How do we take what we know about learning and make it portable? Where's our "learning To Go"?

If you think about it, it's rather tragic, since learning is transfer: I know x, then you know it, too. So if all these folks who know so much about learning can't pass it on easily to others, what does that say? Either we don't know so much, or (what I'd rather believe): we don't practice what we preach.

We are not very good at this. So many conversations about learning, so much talking without listening, so much hypothesizing without evidence, so much wanting to do something 'new'--when we don't even get the 'old' stuff right.

If we were good at bundling up what we know about learning and putting it to work, every college student would enjoy every class and succeed mightily. And MOOC's would not have an attrition rate of 80%.

Sometimes a question or an analogy can focus the mind wonderfully. Take for the moment this question.

What is the file format or container format for learning design?

In the world of computers, we have file formats and digital container formats.

  • File formats are things like .doc, .docx, .zip, .epub, .ibook, .kindle, etc.
  • File formats are types of information, structured in certain ways, and readable by certain software and devices.
  • Digital container formats are things like .mp3, .mp4, .wav, etc.
  • Container formats are not just a question of compression--how stuff is squeezed in there--but of how it's bundled up and what kind of "meta-data" allows software to know what's inside--if it's a song, who the artist is, and whatnot.

And what follows aims to answer two questions.

  • How can we bundle and transfer and share what we know about learning and technology?
  • And how can we support video literacy and other '21st-century skills'?

What follows aims to answer these two questions together.

So first, what's the "container format" for instructional design? For ideas about teaching and learning effectively?

There are a couple of clear candidates:

  • The Tool.
  • The Learning Concept.

These are both wrong--but for different reasons.

The Tool. The tool does not carry any learning design or principles with it. The hammer does not automatically build a stable or attractive house. The chalk does not know the answer to the equation.

Likewise, Twitter is not an idea about learning. Video is not a specific way of learning. The technology neither defines what is learned nor how. So sharing tools and information about them is not enabling effective teaching or learning: it's enabling use of the tool; it may even be distracting from teaching and learning. (There. I said it.)

The Learning Concept. This sounds good on its face. Engagement. Self-efficacy. Motivation. Cognitive Load. The Events of Instruction.

All these are powerful ideas about learning, about under what conditions learning does or doesn't happen, what might promote learning or prevent it. Sounds nice.

But they are all many, many steps away from actual learning. They're abstractions. They still need to be applied, and they can be applied well or poorly--or not at all, as I fear is all too often the case.

I've been cooking jams and preserves recently, and I read that food stays unspoiled when canned below a pH of 4.6. Great! This is just dandy, but I have no idea how to tell if what I'm cooking is pH 4.6 or 8 or 1. They give you recipes and say "don't adjust or change anything," and when it comes to cooking, that is just not how I roll.

So what is the container format for learning?

The Assignment.

And the assignment carries with it the support model for video literacy, visual literacy, multimedia literacy, and all the other menu items everyone wants in our cafeteria-style 21st century university.

Consider how writing is supported on many college campuses.

  • Writing centers focus on particular assignment types: largely prose argumentation somewhere between five and 30 pages.
  • Existing courses either focus solely on this type of assignment (such as writing courses) or expect students to have mastered this skill.
  • All the instructors offering this type of assignment share very similar expectations--
    • about argument,
    • about evidence,
    • about persuasion,
    • etc.
  • The writing center is staffed with people trained to meet the expectations of writing instructors and other scholars.
    • Often the writing center is run by the writing department.
    • Writing instructors are also scholars who study writing and its teaching.
      • They not only do scholarly communication, they are scholars of it.
  • Students may get drop-in support or schedule an appointment.
  • Students show up for help with definite types of problems based on their instructors' expectations.
    • Is my argument clear? Can it be supported in the scope I have?
    • Am I representing an opposing viewpoint fairly or distorting it?
    • Am I balancing the sources of my rhetorical appeals--reason and emotion, for instance?
    • Am I giving the reader enough evidence to come to an alternative conclusion?
    • Am I using organizational patterns effectively? Inadequately? Excessively?
    • Etc.
  • Students get support which fits hand-in-glove with the expectations of faculty.

One of my repeated points about the theory and practice of teaching and learning is: do what works. You don't need to understand all the relevant theories and then "apply them." No one knows how to do that. And chances are the prototype works in the first place because those theoretical principles are already baked-in.

A far better idea is:

  • Take what works.
  • Treat it as a prototype.
  • Build another instance of the same type.

(Of course, this implies actually knowing what works: not just doing things because we've always done them.)

The logic of practice is the logic of types and instances.

  • I can write many letter A's, because I know the features of the general type, and I can write one instance--which means I can write many.
  • I can write many argumentative prose essays, because I know the general type, and I've written many instances.

That's what practice is: making and modifying instances of a known type. Creating a new type is a separate thing. That's innovation or creativity. One of the complexities of start-up's is: they are sometimes creating a new type and using the logic of practice, such as prototyping, to build the instances.

If we know something works, we can treat it as a prototype.

  • I know that this muffin recipe has one part liquid to four parts flour.
  • So I bet--and it is indeed a sort of wager--that if I use the same proportions, I can change the liquid and the flour and still get something muffin-ish.
  • And if the batter doesn't look right, I can jigger it as I go.

This is not science, because practice is not a controlled experiment. And practice is not the first-time-ever application of a purely abstract principle. Practice is doing what we did before--under similar or different circumstances, possibly with some conscious changes.

So how do you support video literacy? The same way you support argumentative prose writing. The first steps involve getting to the place where we already are with argumentative prose writing.

  • Focus on a particular video assignment type--e.g.,
    • the interview,
    • the persuasive video,
    • documentary observation,
    • the critical re-mix.
  • Identify instructors and courses who can use this assignment type to meet current course goals.
  • Get together with the instructors to converge on similar expectations.
    • Look at existing prose assignments.
    • Look at videos and critique them from the same perspective.
    • Build a shared sense of the grammar of the medium.
    • Transfer existing scholarly values and ideals to the new domain.

Then you're just building another writing center.

  • Create an ad hoc "video communication center" on the model of the writing center.
  • Staff the "video communcation center"
  • Train the staff to meet the expectations of the instructors giving the supported types of video assignments.
    • Unlike traditional writing assignments, not all scholars share a set of assumptions about 'video writing' of the same kind they have about scholarly writing.
    • Therefore, there is a stopgap type of work that needs to be done: getting everyone on the same page about what each assignment is, should be and does.
    • But there is a leverage point: when video communication serves as scholarly communication it shares many of the same values. Therefore faculty are not starting from scratch: all their scholarly values still hold.
  • Set up drop-in and appointment support.
  • Students show up for help with definite types of problems based on their instructors' expectations.
    • Is my narrative clear?
    • Am I representing the interview accurately? Or distorting?
    • Am I balancing the sources of my rhetorical appeals--reason and emotion, for instance?
    • Am I giving the viewer enough evidence to come to an alternative conclusion?
    • Am I using visual patterns effectively? Inadequately? Excessively?
    • Etc.
  • Students get support which fits hand-in-glove with the expectations of faculty.

How do you get there? One course at a time.

  • Build a program to 'mediatize' courses.
  • Start with a small number of assignments.
  • Recruit faculty whose courses goals fit well with the assignment types.
  • Support the faculty the semester or summer before the course being revised.
  • Measure the support per course and per student.
  • Plan to maintain the existing courses when they are next offered.
  • Scale up by adding a mix of staff and student staff as demand grows.
  • As more courses offer the same type of assignments, less support will actually be needed because student have had most of the support they need in a prior course.
  • Add new assignment types on the same pattern.

Of course, teaching visual communication skills may be at least as delicate as making jam, if not more so.

  • If you change the jam recipe, won't the jam fail to gel?
  • Isn't it possible to poison your family in friends with improperly-canned jam?
  • Isn't it possible our students' work "won't gel"--because we changed something important in the assignment package or support model?

We should likely assume that with most practical processes we find effective, they are so reundantly, overlappingly: for many reasons.

  • We preserve foods with vinegar (the pH part)--but also with salt, sugar, heat and vacuum sealing.
  • Likewise, we should assume the way we support argumentative writing won't be 'broken' by changing a single element--the medium.

Or so we hope. Practice is art, not science. So judgment and care both help. And we should check the better as we go.

Sharing what we know about teaching and learning doesn't have to be complicated. We just have to do what works: bundle good teaching & learning into assignments.

And then, yes: you can have your video literacy To Go.

--Edward R. O'Neill


  1. Have you been doing this? Do you have some examples?

    1. I have some courses I personally support with video instruction. I've been able to do this with two video editing trainings during class time, plus some classroom visits to comment on rough cuts. Then I do drop in support for students with technical and editing questions.

      This is for two courses. But if there were more courses, the workshops could be outside class time. Students could be responsible for signing up--or simply demonstrating competency by submitting a specific assignment.


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