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Web101: Content | higheredukate
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A couple of months ago, I presented a seminar called Web 101. It focused on what educators, learning designers and learning support professionals can learn from disciplines related to the context we operate in: the web. The web is my classroom, and I know that pedagogy is only one part of good learning design. The other part is about understanding the web as a context for learning, knowing how it works, and borrowing from disciplines like web design, information architecture, user experience, and communication to design learning experiences that work online.

This blog post is the second in a series of short posts related to that seminar. In each post, I’ll briefly introduce a discipline or domain and talk through a handful of tips about how we can operationalise some of the practices from these domains in our teaching practice.

Let’s get started.


This post doesn’t really focus so much on a specific discipline, but straddles a number of content-related disciplines, from graphic design to videography, animation to sound. My key message here is this: The web is not a static text-based medium. So why do we rely so heavily on text in online teaching?

In my last post, I wrote about writing good web content. In this post, I want to encourage you to stop writing web content, and start producing other types of content that capitalise on trends in content consumption.

Tip 1: Don’t default to text

Instead of writing 20 pages of content for your module that students will download in PDF format, think about the learning outcomes you are trying to foster, the content you are dealing with, and the best way to communicate that content and achieve those outcomes. Text is not always the answer. In fact, I’d argue that text doesn’t need to be the answer – or the complete answer – in very many cases. Even when text might seem to be the best option for communicating content, I still thinking it’s really important that we challenge ourselves to bring in other types of media along with it.

Imagine you’re a student who has to read a 20 page text module every week, followed by three or four academic articles, for each course you’re enrolled in. Now think about the practical issues associated with that kind of text heavy engagement. These might include problems with retaining the content, issues with motivation, boredom due to lack of variety, inability to grasp concepts that are difficult to describe in text, and time management issues, along with many others.

If you really need to use a lot of text based content, break it up through strategic use of other media. Create graphical representations of key concepts and embed them in the text. Record a short video that concisely summarises a key theory and embed it at the point where the theory is referenced. Do an interview with someone from industry to illustrate a key concept and embed it in the module.

The web gives us the opportunity to push beyond the digital equivalent of a course reading brick by interweaving a variety of content formats to create dynamic and engaging experiences. Creating and curating a range of content types should be our new default.

Tip 2: Use other people’s content carefully and purposefully

There is a wealth of open content on the web that we can include in our courses, but we need to be purposeful about how we do this. I have seen courses using videos sourced from YouTube where the video sort of fits what was needed, or its of dubious quality, or its made by an organisation you probably don’t want to be seen to be endorsing. I’ve definitely been an offender of the ‘it sort of fits and I don’t have time to make something better so I’ll use it’ type.

I think using openly licensed content created by others in our courses is a fantastic idea. But it needs to be bang on topic, it needs to be high quality (and here I’m not just talking about production values, but rigour), and it needs to be made by a person or organisation that you’d feel comfortable endorsing publicly (one exception to that is, of course, where you are trying to purposefully illustrate and critique alternative perspectives). If it doesn’t meet these criteria, we really shouldn’t be using it.

And it goes without saying: only use content that is appropriately licensed.

Tip 3: Observe and draw on content trends

Be inspired by what’s going on with consumer content trends. Audio and video are two huge formats right now. Watching and listening to sped up video and audio allows me to consistently consume between three and six hours of content a day (yep, I monitor it!). This is content I can engage with while doing other things, like cooking, cleaning, driving, or sitting by the soccer sidelines.

Let’s hone in on podcasts as an example to help me get to my point… It’s not just the suitability of podcasts to multi-tasking that keeps me coming back to them, nor is it just that I can double the playback speed. It’s also the entertainment factor, the quality of the content, the way the content is designed and structured (I particularly enjoy interview-based or conversation podcasts), the fact new content is pushed to me through subscriptions, the easy access to show notes with relevant links, and the social element. It’s all of those characteristics together. It’s not just the container, but the style.

So if a lecturer was to record monologue lectures in lieu of text modules and post a link on the LMS, would the podcast lover in me be satisfied by that? Probably not. Because that wouldn’t really be drawing on the characteristics of the podcast as a format that draw me back to them again and again.

Instead, the lecturer might

  • host a weekly 15 minute interview-style podcast episode where they speak to a different person from industry each week
  • syndicate the content so students can subscribe in their favourite podcast app as well as access it through the LMS
  • provide relevant links and background in show notes that appear in the app and the LMS.

THAT would be learning from the podcast format.

I’ve used the podcast example here, but this applies to any type of content. Putting up a video recording of a lecture isn’t going to satisfy an avid watcher of vlogs. Capturing a day in the life of a professional in their field, vlog style, probably would. We need to look holistically at what makes these content types so successful and learn from those observations.

Tip 4: Don’t chop your lecture recordings into short videos

There’s been a lot of research and discussion around optimal length of videos for student engagement. I’m not going to get into the specifics of optimal length here because that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Let’s just say that in general terms, we know that shorter is better.

In reaction to this idea, I have seen academics chop up one or two hour lecture recordings into short videos. I might have even done that myself once or twice.

This is really not ideal.

A lecture is a bit like a paper. It has a narrative arc and an argument that is built up, expanded on, and fleshed out over the course of the lecture. We would never chop up an academic paper and publish the methodology in one journal, the literature review in another, and the findings in another. They need to be seen together to make sense. So why do it to a lecture?

Unless a lecture is specifically designed to be carved up in this way, it would be really hard to chop it up meaningfully.

Further, if you are just chopping 60 minutes of video into ten parts, you’re still asking students to watch the same quantity of video. You’ve just made it less convenient and more disjointed by chopping it up. It kind of defeats the purpose.

It is possible, though, to use your existing lectures as a starting point for brand new short videos that work as independent entities. When I first started using what I called ‘mini lecture videos’ a number of years ago, I started with my existing lectures then broke these up into key concepts and created videos about individual or groups of concepts. In practical terms, I did this by having my existing lecture recordings transcribed to give me a starting script, and then I developed a series of scripts and recorded a video for each. This resulted in a series of videos that I could embed in learning materials for each week. Each video was a discrete entity. They were far from perfect (far, far, far…), but they weren’t a cut up lecture and they worked in isolation of each other. From year to year, I could then go back and make edits and updates to the scripts and very quickly record updated versions.

Wherever possible, don’t just chop up your lecture recordings. Take the time to design individual videos. It will always result in better experiences for your students.

Tip 5: Not all content needs to have high production values

Not every piece of content needs to be made in a TV studio or recorded with professional sound equipment. It is possible to make ‘good enough’ videos without access to a fancy camera and rock star editing skills. It’s also possible to record and edit decent audio with some consumer tech and Audacity.

I use my iPhone, a Glif mount, a folding tripod and a lapel mic that plugs into my phone to record talking to camera videos in my home office, and iMovie to edit them. Will they win awards? Nope. Do they result in a stronger sense of teacher presence in my courses and make me seem more accessible to students? Yep! For example, I generally make an intro video at the start of each week in which I talk through key information for the coming week, demonstrate things on the course sites, share a resource and so forth. It would be a waste of time and money to shoot those in a studio because they are not necessarily reusable semester-to-semester. Quick and dirty does the job. And I would even argue, quick and dirty makes me seem more accessible.

I also make those mini lecture videos I mentioned earlier with a low production value because in the past I’ve taught in technology disciplines and I know I’m going to want to throw some of those videos out year to year. Again, a TV studio and a professional edit are just not required.

It would make more sense to invest in a fancy animation of a key theory that will likely come up in multiple courses than to invest in a video of me giving an overview of a social media platform that’s likely to look completely different next year.

Key message: It’s easy to get fixated on producing content with high production values but not all content was created equal. It’s not always necessary.

One thing I would add here: while you don’t need a professional quality video camera to record your weekly introduction video, I would suggest that you give some consideration to what you do use. If you have a recent smart phone, you will get a much, much better quality video if you use your smart phone to record talking to camera videos than if you use a webcam. Similarly, your audio will be loads better if you plug in a USB mic (or even, in a pinch, your iPhone headset) instead of using your laptop’s inbuilt microphone. Those are simple things that can make a big difference.