Making educational videos – some practical experiences

There has been a great deal of publicity over the last year or so about MOOCS where students take courses that are delivered over the internet, with short videos replacing lectures. Videos are also an essential element of the so-called ‘flipped classroom’ where students watch videos which explain the content in advance and spend the classroom session in discussions and exploration of issues arising from the lectures. I’m not convinced by MOOCS but I think the idea of the flipped classroom is worth exploring.

However, my entry into video presentations is rather more prosaic – I will be retiring shortly and the area in which I teach is one where there is a serious shortage of people – it’s not likely that I can be replaced at short notice and my course is a fundamental part of our Masters degree schemes. So, we decided that delivering the course material by video would be a good idea.

The easy approach to this is to record lectures as they are delivered but I don’t think that this works. Lecturing to a live audience is something that’s quite different as you respond to the audience with repetition of material, asides and examples based on comments and so on. What’s effective in the classroom is often dull and irritating to watch. So, I decided to adopt the MOOC approach where the material is presented in short video segments from 8 to 15 minutes.

Never having done this before, I turned to the Internet for advice. There is lots of advice on equipment and software but, unless I was searching in the wrong way, very little about the practicalities of making a video itself. So, having now done about 15 videos and having learned by experience, I thought that it might be helpful for others embarking on this to set out what I have found works and what doesn’t work.

I made my videos at home rather than in a studio as this was simply much more convenient – but that brought its own problems. I used a single camera setup and natural window light and worked entirely on my own.

1.     Consumer cameras work fine – I used a Sony NEX-7 but I suspect the quality from a good quality compact camera would be good enough.

2.     I think it’s less distracting to have a plain background – I used the wall in my home office. This also gives you the opportunity if you wish to have slides as an inset.

3.     Do not wear a light coloured shirt or top if you have a light background – you blend in to the background. A contrasting colour is better. It is also better to sit slightly off-centre in the frame.

4.     You have to be careful with the light if the weather is dull or rainy. A 25 FPS video means that each frame gets 1/25th of a second exposure. If the light isn’t good enough, this can mean your videos are too dark.  This obviously depends on the lens you have.  I considered buying supplementary lights, which is probably the best approach but they take up quite a lot of space so I didn’t go down this route. You can fix underexposure in your editing program but it’s a bit of a pain.

5.     I prepared my talk as Powerpoint slides and used these as a script.  As I do in lectures, I ad-libbed from the bullet points on the slides. This meant that there are a few stumbles in the videos but I think this is more natural than a formally scripted video. It is also much less time consuming – I could put together the slides for a 10 minute video and record the video in less than 2 hours.  Editing took about the same amount of time.

6.     In lectures, I use images from all over the place and I don’t worry too much about copyright issues as I am clearly using them for non-commercial educational purposes with a small audience. The legal position for the use of images in video is more ambiguous – I’m not sure how much a ‘fair use’ provision applies. Accordingly, I try to use images that are licensed using a Creative Commons licence and I make sure these are credited. This significantly restricts your choice so unfortunately my videos have fewer images than I’d really like. Occasionally, I use another image if I really need an illustration (e.g. an aircraft accident)  but never one that’s for commercial purposes and I also make sure that these are fully credited. If anyone complains, I’ll have to change them but no-one has so far.

7.     I edit the videos so that a talking head is interleaved with Powerpoint slides and other images. I considered using one of the video services where your presentation and slides can be synced but didn’t go down this route because I could not rely on the long-term availability of the service provider.

8.     I use iMovie for video editing. It is quite easy to use once you get the hang of it but rather slow on my elderly laptop. Unfortunately, for reasons I don’t  understand, when you import Powerpoint slides, the text is not completely sharp. You can either live with this (I could not find a fix) or redo the slides as titles. I lived with this under the assumption that students would download the slides to use when watching the video and it’s not too bad if the display isn’t full screen. If you find a fix for this please let me know.

9.     You will get things wrong as you are delivering the material.  I find it best to leave longish pauses between bullet points so that you can simply redo the one you got wrong rather than having to start again at the beginning. I also found it best to simply have a single take with the camera running all the time. When you go wrong, you simply start again and edit out the section with the blooper.

10.     You are not making a TV programme and you can’t expect to achieve the production values of TV. Slightly jumpy cuts and stumbles don’t really detract from the educational content.

11.     The material that I was delivering on critical systems engineering didn’t need computer demos – if you need these, make sure you get a screen recording program.

12.     If you are recording in widescreen, make sure that your Powerpoint or Keynote slides are also widescreen. I sometimes forgot to do this.

13.     I found it best to have one or at most two bullet points per slide so that I could easily interleave these. This contrasts with my approach in lectures where I have several points per slide. I tried animation – it looked awful and I strongly advise against bullet points flying in.

You can see the videos I’ve made on my YouTube channel – these show how I have learned as I have had more experience in the area.

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