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Author: Doug Waters, JD, MBA

If you want to increase engagement in your online course, then consider creating an animated video series. Today’s user-friendly software makes it quite doable, even for those of us who don’t have instructional designer–level chops.

Think of animated videos as the proverbial rug that ties the room together. An animated video series is a fun, engaging way to connect topics across course modules. Animated videos can serve multiple learning purposes, such as on-campus class icebreakers or discussion-board prompts. Instructors can deliver them in digestible segments that span the entire curriculum.

If you’re still intrigued, let me give you fair warning: it will be time-consuming to create the videos. But I can testify firsthand that it will be worth the effort.

Developing an online video

A few years ago, when I was tasked with redeveloping an online business law course, my then boss suggested that our online department could do amazing things—such as create animated videos. I found this to be true for the most part, but I had to steer the ship. This will undoubtedly be true for you too.

After a semester and a half, a talented instructional designer and I had produced a six-part video series about two fictional college students turned entrepreneurs. In the videos they encounter every legal hurdle along the way to building their business—from bad hiring and firing practices to negotiation no-nos—as they operate and eventually sell their sub sandwich shop. Throughout the course the animated videos introduce the different stages of the business life cycle. Each animated video is immediately followed by attorney interview videos, which analyze the legal scenarios the animated scenes present. Two years after we made them, the animated scenes continue to deliver teachable moments to hundreds of business law students each year.

Making animated videos starts with the choice of software. The most powerful system is Vyond (Figure 1), which charges $220 for three months or $650 for a year. If your school or department does not want to pay this much, then there are many other options, including free ones, that work fine as well.

Animated image of a man and woman talking. Caption reads "Mike & Emma, two fo the stars of Career Carpe Diemers"
Figure 1. Animated characters created with Vyond for a business course.

Next, either enlist someone with experience in animation or learn the software yourself. Today’s animation software is remarkably easy to learn and use, but it could take a month to build your first video. Basically, you create characters from templates and add dialogue with pop-up speech boxes, computer-generated voices (like a GPS), or actual voice recordings.

Third, review your course objectives to brainstorm your story’s theme. In another one of my courses, Introduction to Business, the big-picture outcomes are to practice job-finding skills and to overview business career paths; therefore, I created a second animated series featuring three new business students who are assigned to shadow business professionals and make a class presentation about the experience. A simple storyline like this may not be Oscar-worthy, but it reinforces major course outcomes. You can also customize the videos to your institution. For instance, my college’s entrepreneurship center makes cameos in my animated videos.

Fourth, entice some creative colleagues to hold a few whiteboard sessions with you. Gain their input: What settings make sense? How might one scene transition to another? Who are the main characters—businesspeople, scientists, a struggling math student? Don’t plan much dialogue yet. Afterward, go to a coffee shop with a notepad and begin writing. Start by emptying your thoughts onto paper; you can add structure later. Scripting the story is fun. (By the way, ask a sensitive colleague to review your final script so no student could possibly be offended by any lines that seem harmless to you.)

Building the scenes in the software is the hard part. For your first animated video series, keep it simple: (1) don’t create more than two main characters; (2) don’t create more than three scenes; (3) write only a page and a half of conversation per scene; (4) keep lines of dialogue to a couple of sentences each; and finally, (5) describe background noise and add transitional phrases (e.g., “clanging glasses,” “cut to table where students are seated”).

One other important note: Once you’ve embedded your scenes in your course site, create simple quizzes to encourage students to actively watch the videos. Otherwise you run the risk of no one viewing them.

Finally, learn from my biggest mistake. I gave myself too much work under a time crunch. I made my first animated series an integral part of my course from the get-go. I planned to connect other interview videos to the animated videos. Without the animated videos, I couldn’t deploy the interviews and accompanying quizzes. In hindsight I would have built standard components to run the course the first semester and added the bells and whistles later, without deadline pressure. Online departments have different scheduling practices, but be nice to your future self by allowing plenty of time to complete the animated videos.

Buckle up for an exhilarating, transformative experience for both your students and yourself.

Doug Waters, JD, MBA, is the business department chair at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan.