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Adventures in Educational Video Design 2.5- On Brevity

Adventures in Educational Video Design 2.5- On Brevity

Last week’s entry in the course video creation series went over without too much controversy. Which was reassuring (or maybe concerning?), as I was largely drawing broad conclusions from nothing other than my “teacher sense”. But I did get a question from a well-respected colleague about the role of brevity in course videos, and why that wasn’t on my list of major thoughts on what videos should look like:

Do you reject brevity as a video priority, or was it omitted from the list for other reasons?

My answers are “no” and “yes” in that order. We can do the second one first: Brevity didn’t make the list because it’s not in my top three. It would probably be in my top five, but listing five principles seemed like it would result in a piece that was too long (pause to acknowledge the irony of this sentence).

So why isn’t brevity as important to my thinking as cognitive style, quality of media, and curricular structure? I think the simplest version of my answer here is that the focus on these three elements takes care of brevity concerns, at least in most cases. It’s not that brevity isn’t important, it’s just that good video design should result in suitably brief videos.

In my experience, most teachers who make course videos will use a “less than 10 minute” rule-of-thumb when trying to figure out the grain size for their clips. This is pretty much inline with what research seems to suggest about how long students can easily pay attention to things like lectures. Most of my videos hit the \<10 data-preserve-html-node="true" minute mark, but that’s not because that’s what I’m aiming for. Here’s my rule:

Course videos should be as short as possible, and no shorter.

This can, and does, result in clips that are longer than 10 minutes. That’s because some narratives need more time than others in order to be represented the way I want to represent them.

Let’s use the most recent video that I’ve posted as a case in point. The final video is 11:03 in length. I’m generally going to wind up cutting ~50-70% of the footage that I film from a video before it becomes the final product. In this example, the final 11-minute video came from almost 40 minutes of raw footage. So it’s (barely) a violation of the “10 minute rule”, but in my narrative framing it basically has to be. The video recounts some of the major historical developments in genetic research that resulted in the determination of the double-helix model of DNA structure. I think it mentions the contributions of 8 different researchers/teams of researchers before seating each of their contributions within a modern understanding of DNA structure. That’s a lot of stuff. But (for me), it’s a necessary amount. If I was zealous in my adherence to sub-10-minutes, I don’t think this video would work as well. It would either have to contain less information (and it’s already relatively superficial), or it would have to be chunked into multiple videos. The latter approach might work, but I’m not sure what the point would be, or how the “need” for shorter videos is more important to the disruption of the narrative point of the video.

Assuming you can accept the above justification for the length of the video, the natural question is something like “Okay, then how do we bring a video that exceeds the optimal cognitive load for a student into our practice in a way that maximizes its utility for those students?” I think the answer to that question lies in the scaffolding that supports the video. It is our responsibility as teachers to help our students develop the skills they need to process information. In the case of course videos, this includes “active viewing” techniques (ex. annotated viewing notes, using structures like the viewing guides that I make for each video I use in my classes), and “active learning” structures (ex. embedded formative assessments on tools like EdPuzzle). In exactly the same way that we would pause an in-person content discussion to allow students to make meaning with the information, we need to do the same sorts of things when using videos (or when training students to read texts, or whatever other course media we decide to employ). In my view, it’s the presence of structures like these, probably more than anything else, that make course videos a functional extension of a curriculum, rather than just another educational YouTube clip.

All of that said, if you’re north of 10 minutes, you really should make sure you need to be.


How are you using videos in your classes? Do you have other ways to help scaffold them for your students? Drop me a line or leave a comment below if you have something to say. We get better by learning from each other!

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