Like most of my colleagues, I spent dozens upon dozens of hours this summer converting my university courses to an online format. I showed you the result, for my 3rd year Entomology course, in last week’s post – and to be honest, I think the result is pretty good.* Of course, what I think about it doesn’t really matter – what matters is what my students think about it. Or maybe that’s what matters. I’m not sure, and a seemingly minor decision puts the question in sharp relief for me: one long video, or a bunch of short ones?
My university made an early decision to go online for fall (both going online, and calling it early, were very good decisions). That meant that our Centre for Enhanced Teaching and Learning had time to put on a course in online pedagogy and logistics, and I had time to take it. (Well, by “had time”, I mean “made time”; anyone who thinks that the move to online made professors’ jobs easier is, shall we say politely, incompletely informed.) One recommendation got a lot of stress in that course: for the presentation of content, chunking material into short videos. Five minutes! Four minutes! Three minutes!
This was a bit startling. Three minute videos? I’m rather hopeful that, by the time students get to third year university, little of what we’re teaching them is simple enough to be addressed meaningfully in three minutes. And yet…. the case is a powerful one. Big tasks are daunting; sets of small tasks are much less so (this is even a strategy I discuss, for writing, in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing). Our learning management system gamifies this, putting large green checkmarks against the items a student has completed; lots of short videos means lots of green checkmarks, accumulating quickly. I’d make fun of this, except that I know perfectly well that my own behaviour is very susceptible to exactly this sort of gamification. Just three more minutes and I can have another green checkmark? Count me in!
But I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was all a bit infantilizing. Surely, I thought, it was reasonable to expect a third-year university student to watch a 30 minute video? (I’d even be OK with them pausing it halfway through.). We like to assume that our students are adults, and that they’re finding ways to attack university courses as professional learners. Watching a 30 minute lecture, whether in real life or on video, seems like a rather minor ask of an adult professional learner, doesn’t it?
Here’s the thing: watching a 30 minute lecture is a rather minor ask. Of course my students should be willing to watch a 30 minute video, and of course they should be able to learn from it. But this is a prescriptive view of student learning: it’s about what I think students should be able to do. And even if I’m right (which I am!), I’ll admit that the fact that students should be able to display a particular behaviour may not be very relevant. A descriptive view of student learning would, instead, observe that there’s plenty of evidence that real students, in the real world, learn better from more shorter videos. I can ride my high horse about what I should be able to expect all I like, but it won’t change the fact that I’ll get better results from knowing what actually works best.
So did I chunk all my content into three-minute videos? Since I just made that argument, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? But I didn’t, for two reasons. One is that some topics, I think, really do work better in larger chunks. The other – more important in the longer run – is that I’d like to think I’m teaching more than content. I’d like to think I’m also helping students develop into more professional learners. So yes, I’m providing extremely clear expectations for each week so students don’t procrastinate and fall behind; but I also try to be part of a long-term effort to teach time and task management so students won’t procrastinate even without those clear week-by-week expectations. And yes, I’m chunking my content into shorter units, but some are three minutes (OK, not many); some are five minutes; and a few are ten minutes or even a little more. The longest so far is fourteen. To be honest, I don’t know how to teach students to be professional learners; but I’m pretty sure that a 100% diet of easy three-minute videos isn’t the way.
So has prescriptive or descriptive won the battle? You won’t be shocked to know that neither has. The descriptive view has me providing chunked content, with more videos but shorter. The prescriptive view has me challenging my students a little, asking them to find strategies to learn from varied material – not just what they like best. Does this make me heedless of evidence, or supportive of longer-term student development? I wish I knew.
© Stephen Heard Sept 22, 2020
UPDATE: here’s Greg Crowther, from earlier this summer, agonizing over video length too; and he offers the sensible argument that looking for natural break points may be more important than obsessing over “three minutes”.
Image: Just kidding; that’s a mockup, not a real course page. Really, it would take me at least four minutes.
*^The online format has some significant advantages over the in-classroom format. It has disadvantages too, and how they balance out is a pretty important question for higher education in general. I don’t have the answer. I expect that online will be clearly better for some students, and worse for others, but I’d love to know what fraction of students fall into those two groups.