At heart, teaching is about explaining something in a way that another understands. But it’s easy to forget this simple fact and fall into a “covering content” mentality rather than a “producing understanding” mindset. This is where we walk through information like reading a textbook without thinking in terms of communicating with our students, which is akin to using PowerPoint for a marriage proposal.
This is why many people love TED Talks—they shed the trappings of a traditional lecture by focusing on communicating with the audience. This is also why Common Craft videos, which explain concepts using simple paper cutouts moved on and off of a background, are popular. Their simple format forces the creator to focus on whittling down the message to its essence and explaining it “in Plain English,” as Lee and Sachi LeFever, the creators of Common Craft, used to put into the title of their videos. In their view, it’s the very constraints of the Common Craft format that make it so effective. The limited number of available tools stretches the imagination in a way that reveals possibilities and connections that are obscured when we are given unlimited choices.
In particular, the Common Craft format is ideal for introducing concepts in an online lesson. All effective communication begins by getting your audience’s attention, meaning that you should introduce lessons with something that motivates students to learn more. Common Craft–type videos force us to mine out what is important in a topic and explain it in a way that the audience understands.
Here are a variety of methods for creating Common Craft–style videos.
The original Common Craft videos used paper cutouts and real hands to move them on and off of a surface. Teachers who want to do the same can purchase a pack of over 2,200 Common Craft–style images for $34 on their website. Then they print the images that they want, tie a camera above a table, and record their hands placing the cutouts on the surface.
The best way to make these videos is to record the narration first, as narration determines pacing and imagery. Some people recommend recording the audio with the video together by speaking and moving images on and off the table with the camera recording narration, but that makes it hard to get quality audio. Plus, the narration can become choppy as the speaker pauses while waiting for the cutouts to arrive or leave. It is better to record your audio first in a program such as Audacity and then edit it down to the final version by deleting all the mistakes.
It is also common to drain the emotion out of your voice when being recorded. This is why it is important to force yourself to speak with more vocal inflections than you might normally do. Listen to the emphases added in the Common Craft videos and try to match them as this emphasis is critical to maintaining audience interest. If you sound bored with your topic, your viewer will be as well.
Once you have your narration, line up the cutouts off of the table, start the camera recording without sound if you can (you can also remove it in editing), and play the narration out loud while moving pieces on an off the table in sync with the narration. Afterward, use a video editor such as WeVideo to combine the camera recording with the audio recording. Common Craft even offers a free course on how to make videos that comes with 100 free cutouts.
Common Craft has moved away from the original paper cutouts to a completely digital format that mimics physical hands and cutouts. The advantage of this method is that you can do it entirely on your computer, and this is my preferred way of making Common Craft–style videos. VideoScribe and Powtoons are the two best systems for making these videos. Both allow teachers (or students) to make short videos for free that include a watermark or to pay for a relatively inexpensive plan to eliminate the watermark (the same is true of WeVideo). Note that you can also use the free plan and trim out the watermark with a video editor, but a part of me wonders whether this is an unethical means of taking advantage of the company’s free offer.
These systems give the creator a blank white screen on which to compose their video. Once again, you would record your audio narration first and upload it to the system. Then you would either grab images from the system’s built-in image library or upload your own to accompany the narration. They even have a feature that allows you to have a hand sliding the images on and off of the screen as well as writing out any text that you add. Take a look at this example of a video introducing the concepts of paternalism and patient autonomy in my medical ethics class. Also watch this tutorial on how to make Common Craft–style videos with Powtoon.
Richard Byrne has devised a method for making Common Craft–style videos using a presentation system, such as Google Slides or PowerPoint, along with screencasting. This method does not allow for hands moving images on and off of the screen or writing text, but it can be done with free tools without a watermark. See his tutorial on how this is done.
However you make them, Common Craft–style videos are a great way to explain concepts in an online course.