Rebecca Yvonne Bayeck and Jinhee Choi of Pennsylvania State University recently did an interesting study examining how MOOC videos convey messages about culture and power through elements such as dress, setting, and character position. For instance, they found that educational videos from France and South Korea tend to focus on one person who is in professional attire and a formal pose. These elements covey a message of authority, and that the speaker is a fountain of knowledge that the students need to absorb. This, they claim, represents French and South Korean cultural attitudes of authority and power in education.
By contrast, American educational videos tend to have a broader focus of a person using props, such as equipment on a table, as well as assuming informal poses and wearing casual attire. The researchers claim that this represents the less authoritative view of teachers engrained in American culture.
The researchers also claim that French and South Korean videos will tend to include groups of people, still focusing on one person as the authority. Meanwhile American videos tend to only include the speaker, which they claim embodies the difference between the collective mentality of other cultures and the individualism of American culture.
While I do not agree with all of their claims, such as that non-smiling faces and dark colors are masculine, while smiling faces and bright colors are feminine, the study illuminates the often-forgotten point that much, if not most, of what we communicate is not in what we say, but rather how we say it. We modulate the strength of our message through tone of voice and facial expressions. These “softening” signals are lost in text communication, hence the rise of emoticons, which are used to recover the fidelity lost in our message when translating from face-to-face to text communication. Our clothing and posture also sends a message, often related to authority.
Faculty tend to think only of the content of their message when preparing online material, but how they dress, how they speak, and the background they select influences the message and how it is received. It is worth taking some time to consider how you want to portray yourself in your online videos.
When higher education first started creating free digital content, the natural assumption was that it was best to simply place a camera in the back of a lecture hall to record a live class, which of course was the standard of learning. Even when these videos moved out of the lecture hall and into the studio, they reproduced the live lecture by putting a single person behind a lectern, with formal wear, a serious facial expression, and a slow, measured tone. The effect was to portray the speaker as an authority. Think the austere law professor in The Paper Chase
. But it also conveyed the message that the material will be boring, especially to the young viewer.
Drawing the viewer in
By contrast, the private sector started producing educational videos in an entirely different format that was much more effective. For instance, the YouTube SciShow channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/scishow
) uses an energetic speaker in informal clothing who speaks quickly and with a variety of facial and tone inflections that express wonder, joy, surprise, and a variety of other human experiences. The speaker will start by grabbing the audience’s attention with a comment or question, such as, “Does anyone really know what gluten is?” Importantly, the question is delivered with a genuinely perplexed expression and tone, conveying a kind of mutual investigation between the viewer and the speaker. Instead of distancing himself from his viewer, the speaker invites the viewer to be a co-investigator in this endeavor. The effect is to draw the viewer in and spark genuine curiosity and interest in what will come next.
At this point images, animation, and video are used to explore the topic, not just a steady shot of the speaker, since the topic is not the speaker himself, but gluten, and the speaker does not look anything like gluten. This brings up the point that showing the speaker for an entire video without any other imagery sends the subliminal message that the speaker thinks himself or herself to be more important in the learning experience than the subject.
Eventually a few in higher education started producing quality videos, with the most famous coming from the MOOC Learning How to Learn
, offered through Coursera. The video content was of the instructor Barbara Oakley, dressed in casual wear, speaking of topics in front of a green screen with imagery coming in and out to illustrate the points (https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn
). Like the SciShow, Oakley uses facial and voice inflections to heighten the sense of wonder in her topic. She also uses humor to remind the viewer that learning should be fun. For instance, she introduces the issue of learning by asking what you do when you just can’t figure something out. She then says that if you are a zombie you can keep banging your head against a wall, with the image of a zombie head coming in at that point.
Humor seems to be a common element of all good educational videos. The excellent series Hip Hughes History, put on by history professor Keith Hughes, starts with a fairly whimsical opening and Hughes tends to use humor in his introductions (https://youtu.be/yXo9tRB4S3E
). He also uses imagery and props to amplify his message as he goes along If this sounds overly technical, it is not. Any instructional developer should be able to add imagery to a video shot with a greenscreen background using ordinary editing tools. Learn how to make greenscreen videos in the June 2016 issue of Online Classroom.
Besides dress and delivery, faculty can further reduce the distancing message of authority in their videos by including content from others. Learning How to Learn
uses interviews with outside experts to add variety and context to the messages. It is likely that fellow faculty will have valuable contributions to make to any course, so interviews can break up the monotony of seeing one speaker all of the time.
Finally, faculty should consider the message that the background they choose sends to students. The traditional blackboard may appear to set an academic tone, but in reality, will likely only draw up comparisons to the traditional lecture that tends to turn off viewers. Ideally, images are used to illustrate the points made, but even a simple, low-tech alternative to the blackboard makes a big difference. Hughes uses a drawing of an old classroom as the background of some of his videos to provide a slightly ironic twist on the traditional background. Shooting outside will also add some variety and help situate the video within its theme. Socrates generally taught in a forum, which served as the market and all-purpose meeting area in ancient Greece. A philosophy instructor can shoot a segment at a shopping mall to illustrate the differences between that culture and our own, and what it would have meant to teach where people gather to do other things, rather than in a classroom.
Consider the messages that your dress, manner, and surrounding sends in your videos, and what kinds of messages you want to convey.
Bayeck, R. and Choi, J. (2018). The Influence of National Culture on Educational Videos: The Case of MOOCs, International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning,
Volume 19, Number 1.