Can Instruction go Viral? Making Videos that Stick.

Tell a good story
, PCC Faculty Librarian

August 22, 2012

I’m really not the forwarding type, but I just can’t help myself sometimes. Viral videos are my weak point and once in a while I’m compelled to send a video that passes through my inbox or social stream (Example: Where in the H*** is Matt). It seems that the more moving or enlightening the video, the more likely I am to impulsively hit “send” to my entire virtual address book. And while I do enjoy videos that are engaging and (often) thought provoking, the truth is, I’m regularly left slightly irked and jealous of their audience and following.  What I wouldn’t give to inspire that “must pass on” reaction to MY instructional content. When I reflect on the great educators who have touched my mind and heart over the years, their teaching moments would definitely have gone “viral” if given the opportunity. So, why not try to make a video that motivates learning?

My initial impetus to create videos was to provide additional instruction for students. We have a lot of students to serve, and when I'm lucky enough to have their attention, I want to have a video message that sticks. In this essay I describe lessons learned while making instructional (maybe someday even viral) videos.

A case for video instruction

To determine if a video is the right tool for the job, start by browsing YouTube EDU to look for examples of multimedia instruction in your discipline. Just search a key concept or skill and see how instructors are approaching, explaining, or demonstrating it in a video format. With over 800 million visits a month. [1] YouTube is increasingly used as an information source by students; it is a familiar platform to them. But educators have yet to tap into video’s full potential as a teaching and learning tool. When a leading group of YouTube researchers were asked to prioritize a research agenda for the video-sharing site, the technology’s impact on teaching and learning was second on the list. [2] And according to the “multimedia principle” there is evidence to support that sometimes people “learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone” (Mayer, 3). [3] Videos aren’t always the best medium for instruction, but they are definitely worth considering.

There are a lot of great existing videos to embed into courses. For a good listing of options, see the Media for your Course page hosted by PCC’s Instructional Support. It’s also valuable to consider creating your OWN content, as daunting as that prospect may be initially. Your face, your voice and your instructional message in the video builds community outside of classroom walls. So, when does creating a video make sense?

Perennial concepts or skills

Videos are a good choice for reinforcing those key concepts or skills that cross courses or that you find yourself repeating throughout the term. Creating a short instructional video for a topic I cover often and repeatedly can leverage my time. Plus there's that perennial problem of having a lot to cover in a short amount of time. Having videos to enhance and support instruction outside of class time provides additional learning opportunities for students. I also use videos to provide recursive instruction at a particular point in an assignment (need a reminder? click here). This tactic prevents many questions via email the night before an assignment is due and encourages independent learning.

Extending the classroom

Showing something that isn’t possible to experience in the classroom, such as a field excursion or an experiment, is another good use of video instruction. This is particularly useful when you want to demonstrate or show something that students would need to crowd around to see. And, of course, video is a great platform for providing media-rich instruction to online students.

Technology, schmechnology

After I decided to start making videos, my first inclination was to focus on the technology. I purchased equipment (camera, tripod), software (Camtasia, Adobe Photoshop), and went to trainings. I focused on the mechanics of how to use these newfangled technologies, and, while my techniques for filming, clipping and screen capturing were improving, my videos were, to put it mildly - BORING!

Here’s why:

  • I tried to cover everything. Despite my efforts, the videos were too long for any reasonable attention span, including my own.
  • I was detailed and thorough. Isn’t that a good thing? Not if I want my students to care about the topic.
  • I got straight to the point by having a how-to approach, but didn’t provide enough of the “why” behind the “what” I was demonstrating or explaining.

What I really wanted to do was create videos like the Common Craft “In Plain English” series by Lee LeFever (See lots of Common Craft on You Tube). Not only are these videos engaging and funny, they demystified technology topics and I gained the confidence needed to actually try something new. And I’m not alone. Common Craft videos have proven so popular that several have bridged into “viral” territory. For example, LeFever’s Twitter in Plain English has long surpassed the 2.5 million views mark - not bad for an instructional video!

So, how do I do it? My first “ah ha” moment came when I realized: Junk in, Junk out. Up until this point I had been focusing on the HOW of making a video and not WHAT, while most of my time and effort really needed to be spent developing the content and approach to instruction instead of fumbling around with the technology. Also, I needed to start having more fun. If I wasn’t enjoying the process and the outcome, neither would my students.

This all led me to my next question: What makes a video go viral?

Tell a good story

Most folks love a good story and our students are no exception. There’s a lot written on the use of storytelling to engage students in learning across the disciplines, too much to recount here.  But what I’ve gleaned from the literature is that stories can help students make connections between course content and their individual experiences by bridging from what they already know or have experienced to new material. [4]  Stories can also tap into the “so what?” factor and illustrate why what you’re teaching matters.

In my journey to make videos that have a clear and engaging message, I sought out training with Jon Collins, a writer and creative director at Epipheo Studios. [5] Epipheo aims to create epiphany through video and I highly recommend checking out their work for inspiration. [6] While Jon is on the marketing side of things, he and his team recognize that in order to inspire a “must pass on” feeling, a video message needs to appeal to our values and change our perspective or thinking in some way. Only then does a video have the potential to become viral.

According to Jon, a video is more likely to go viral if the video is story-driven because:

  • stories are engaging
  • stories are “sticky” because we return to them again and again over time
  • we identify with and remember stories

When creating videos, Jon wants to move viewers towards an epiphany because they are “rare, valuable, and create adopters and promoters.” This statement really appeals to me as an educator. My hope for students is that each of them, in their own way, gets curious about the world around them, takes command of their learning, and engages with ideas. In other words, I aim to inspire adopters and promoters of lifelong learning. Can a video really help with this cause? I think it’s worth exploring. 

Motivate learning

As a next step I found inspiration in John Keller’s approach to motivational instructional design, articulated by the ARCS Model. [7] Keller’s research provides a model and strategies for motivating students to learn. I’m offering a very simplified interpretation of ARCS, so I encourage you to seek out Keller’s website for more detailed information and further readings. [8] The ARCS Model helped me to see additional value in the storytelling approach to instructional videos, and here’s how.

(A) Attention - capturing interest, stimulating inquiry, maintaining attention

Getting students’ attention first requires knowing a bit about who they are and what they care about. The goal is for your story to begin with a conflict or problem or conundrum that your audience can relate to. Why is the topic worth considering? How is your message relevant? Remember, you already care about the topic, so answer these questions for your students. Why will your students care? It won’t be just because you tell them to.

(R) Relevance - meeting learner needs, providing appropriate content, bridging instruction to learners’ experiences

After setting up the problem, the resolution swoops in to provide insight, complexity, the how-to, or the “answer.” Now that you have students’ attention, you can begin delivering the content of your instruction. In order to do so in a way that continues to motivate students to learn, it is important to deliver content in support of your learners’ needs by using accessible language, relevant examples, avoiding jargon, and defining terms. Try to anticipate and address student questions. What’s going to trip them up? And absolutely no “tutorial” voice. Just be yourself, and try for a natural tone (this is much harder than I expected, so don’t worry if it takes practice).

(C) Confidence - building positive expectation for success, clearly defining what success means

Learners are more motivated when they know what is expected of them and if the task is achievable. Instead of trying to tackle “all of it” in one video, compose a student learning outcome or two that articulate exactly what you expect students to understand or do better after watching the video, and clearly state those goals. This will help you to narrow down the scope. Consider explaining or illustrating your message in a way that builds students’ belief in their own abilities. To that end, sometimes I use a talk-aloud approach in a video script to expose my thought process when working through a problem, concept or strategy. As for time considerations, I suggest aiming for 3 minutes per instructional chunk. Considering the length of a video can also help you to determine the scope of the content.

(S) Satisfaction - providing meaningful opportunities for learners to use their new skill or knowledge, reinforcing learner’s success and a positive feeling about accomplishments

Students aren’t really satisfied or feel successful until they have an opportunity to demonstrate their learning. A video can end with a “call to action” that provides a next step for students - now YOU try! Videos are simply a platform for delivering information to students, so it is important to consider what you want students to do with the information, and asking them to use it in a meaningful way builds confidence and that continues to motivate learning.

Design for brains

Multitasking Millennials sleep with their cell phones and claim technology as a tool that “makes life easier” to a greater degree than the GenXers and Boomers before them. [9] So they can easily fool us into thinking their brains can handle anything we throw at them. But our brains input separate channels for verbal and visual information and have limits to what each channel can handle, so it’s worth considering how to avoid cognitive overload when designing instructional videos. In a 2003 article “Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning,” Mayer and Moreno tested transfer of learning after exposure to multimedia (picture and word, either spoken or written) using problem-solving tests. [10] Based on their research, the authors have put forth suggestions for how to avoid “split attention” and “redundancy” and design learner-centric video instruction. Here’s my take on how their research has informed my approach:

  • Images and narrative should match. Don’t talk about something that isn’t related to what is on the screen. 
  • Avoid duplicating information. For example, don’t read text that’s on the screen or repeat text visually
  • Cut out "noise" such as background music that distracts.
  • Provide both animation and narration to demonstrate or explain.
  • Define key concepts.
  • Use arrows, highlighting, zooming, or other visual cues to draw the attention of the viewer.

Steps 1, 2, 3 and done!

So, here’s how I go about making a video. While my process is iterative and can be kind of messy, I do follow a few steps to get the job done.

Step 1 - Compose the story

To start, I compose an outline using a story arc (Conflict, Resolution, and Call to Action) or ARCS (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction) as a framework. Because many of my projects are collaborative, I am often co-writing with a colleague in the library or a department, which lends itself to a more creative output. At this point I also grapple with defining the scope and learning outcomes for the video. This first step of composing an outline and general sequence for the video is essential for framing your instructional message with your audience in mind. Jon Collins of Ephipheo studios uses a story arc spreadsheet to get a project going, and I’ve found it to be a useful when framing a video and collaborating with others. Here’s a link to a short video with an example story arc spreadsheet that Robin Shapiro and I used earlier this year when starting a video for PCC faculty: Permalinks to Library Stuff Tutorial Worksheet. [11]

Step 2 - Storyboard

Storyboarding is where I spend most of my time when tackling a video because it’s where I develop the content. I typically build a storyboard using PowerPoint slides, where the slide is the image or visual and the notes field is where I compose the script. Here’s a link to the storyboard for the story arc I shared above: Putting the Library in your Course. Notice the title of the project changed, which seems typical of my workflow; I’m discovering the key message of the video as I go. Also keep in mind that you don’t have to use technology for this step, you could opt to storyboard on paper or another medium. The benefit to using PowerPoint or Word is that you can start creating or trying out images. Sometimes I can’t think of the right image or illustration, in which case I put in a placeholder, such as jotting down a few ideas for images or text that might work on that slide. Don’t let yourself get hung up on too many details in the storyboarding process, just move on and come back to it later. Once you have a draft storyboard, this is a really good place to get feedback so you can make tweaks before recording or moving on to the production phase. When selecting images, it is important to consider copyright so that you avoid publishing something you don’t have permission to. I will often take my own pictures so that I know I’m safe, or else, use photo sharing sites, such as Flickr: Creative Commons, and provide proper attribution in my finished video. For details and guidelines on copyright and fair use, see PCC’s Copyright Resource Center.

Step 3 - Record

Once you have the storyboard finalized, you can start putting the video together. Gather up the script and images, and get to work. There are many tools you can put to use to record and produce videos, and I've outlined some favorites below. My suggestion for determining the right tools for the job is to Consult With an Instructional Technology Specialist from Instructional Support to make a plan and explore resources. I also recommend reviewing the Web Accessibility Guidelines to ensure your materials are usable for all students.

Step 4 - Produce

Now that you have a video recorded, it’s time to share it with your audience. At the time of producing the video you will have choices to make about file format and file size, decisions that are informed by where you want to host the video. But don’t be overwhelmed. Just keep in mind that you need to have an idea of where you want to put the video (YouTube, Vimeo, or elsewhere) before you hit produce.

Captions are added at the time of production, and all videos must be captioned to be ADA compliant. At this point you will be ever so grateful to have taken the time to write a script because adding captions is as easy as copy/paste. Some video production software, such as Camtasia Studio, has a voice recognition option that can automatically add captions. And your students will like the option of not needing headphones or speakers to watch and understand the video, which reinforces the universal design principle. [12] that designing instruction for all abilities is appreciated by all students. Some learners prefer text transcripts to help them follow-along. Again, please see the Web Accessibility Guidelines for details.

Tools for the job

People are the most valuable tool at your disposal in the video production process - no matter the size of the project. Video technology is also essential, so I’ve included both below:

  • Instructional Support at PCC is one-stop shopping for getting assistance with enhancing your teaching with technology. Look on the Support Contacts page for the Instructional Technology Specialist near you, and you’ll be glad you did.
  • Faculty Production Labs at each campus provide access to video production hardware and software.
  • Lastly, here’s a shortlist of tools I’ve typically used to make videos, but I’m trying new things out all the time, so it’s a moving target:
    • Microsoft PowerPoint for storyboarding (described above)
    • Jing is free and an easy-to-use tool (no directions required!) for screenshots and creating short screencasts when I’m working on the fly. The downside to Jing videos is they don’t have captions. SnagIt is also useful for screen shots, and there are other free options out there to explore.
    • Camtasia Studio  is a pay-for software with a bit of a learning curve that I use for recording and editing. Camtasia can import a wide range of file formats. I’ve used it to narrate a PowerPoint or do a voice recording over images. Camtasia is also useful for screencasts (recording the computer screen as you navigate and narrate). Once you have a recording, Camtasia offers many editing options, including transitions, zooms, and “callouts” (arrows or text that directs the viewer to a particular part of the screen).
    • YouTube.com or Vimeo.com for hosting and sharing videos. You can create a channel and add favorites from your own or other collections. These hosting sites provide stable links and embed code so that you can put your video almost anywhere you want on the web.

PCC Library videos

The PCC Library provides links to instructional videos on the research process on the Tutorials and Handouts page of the library website. We’ve also started making videos for faculty and staff that highlight different ways to use library collections in support of your teaching. While most likely not a video that will go viral, Linking to the Library (embedded below) provides an example of a product of the production process I’ve outlined here.

Alert: This video has been archived and is historical. Links are no longer being updated.

Librarians also collaborate with faculty to provide tailored video instruction for students outside of class time. This past winter, librarians worked with Biology instructors to create a how-to video on finding articles for a lab assignment. We didn’t reach viral status, but Biology 112: Enzyme research articles has had 321 views to date, and I think it’s safe to assume those views have reached hundreds of students we wouldn’t have otherwise with helpful instruction. Another example of a recent library video is one that provides students with alternatives to Wikipedia for background information: Whatapedia. If you have suggestions for video topics on research skills that you consistently teach your students, and you think we can help, we’d love to work with you.

I’m still learning as I go, but now I approach creating videos with a storytelling process that tries to communicate the value of my message and motivates students to learn something new. And while I don’t expect to create a viral video anytime soon, the quest is an opportunity to build community online and have a little fun along the way. Please get in touch if you’d like to join me!

Sara Seely, Librarian
Portland Community College
Rock Creek Campus

Many thanks to Jim Johnstone and the cracker-jack team at Instructional Support, and my library colleagues Alan Cordle, Ray Henry, Pam Kessinger, and Donna Meeds for valuable additions and comments. I’m continually grateful to be part of the PCC team!

Works cited

1. YouTube Statistics. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/t/press_statistics
2. Snelson, C., Rice, K., & Wyzard, C. (2011). Research priorities for YouTube and video-sharing technologies: A Delphi study. British Journal of Educational Technology,43(1), No-No. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2010.01168.x
3. Mayer, R. E. (2005). "Introduction to Multimedia Learning." In, The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. Richard E. Mayer, Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4. See these examples of recent research on the use of storytelling in teaching college curriculum in the Academic Search Premier Database. PCC authentication required.
5. Jon Collins led training at Boise State University for Library faculty in December of 2010.
6. Ephipheo Studio’s Videos on Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/epipheo/videos
7. Keller, J.M. (1987). “The systematic process of motivational design.” Performance & Instruction, 26 (9/10).
8. Keller’s website for an overview of the ARCS Model and Motivational Design: http://www.arcsmodel.com/Mot%20dsgn.htm
9. Pew Research Center. (Feb. 2010). Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next. Available at: http://pewresearch.org/millennials/
10. Mayer, R.E. & Morena, R. (2003). “Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning.” Educational Psychologist 38(1) 43-52.
11. This video does not have captioning. Please contact me if you’d like a text version of this document.
12. Read more about the Principles of Universal Design from the Center for Universal Design at the University of North Carolina.