Friday, February 1, 2013

The Problem with Instructional Videos

With the second offering of my MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking about to go live on March 2, I am once again asking myself if the current MOOC structure is the best way to make effective, quality higher education available in a cost-effective way on global scale, making use of the existing technology.

The two words that inhibit my confidence that we’ll ever achieve what I and my fellow first-generation MOOC instructors are trying to do, are “effective” and “quality.”

The task gets a whole lot easier if you set your sights really, really low. Say, “Pass the standardized course test that comes at the end.” But that’s equivalent to the goal of engineers who set out to build something
routine, like a software package or a bridge. Does the software do what was intended? Does the bridge meet the specifications? It’s also a meaningful goal of human training, where people want to acquire a new skill.

But no one, surely, would make passing a standardized test the goal of higher education, or even a significant metric thereof. The purpose, after all, is to build more capable thinkers. No, the thought that anyone would make that kind of mistake seems so unlikely, I’ll move on without giving it any more attention, and get back to my main theme: the videotaped lecture.

I’ve commented on a number of occasions (for example, in my blog) that I think the videotaped lecture is, from a learning perspective, the least important constituent of a MOOC, and that, for me at least, MOOCs seemed to offer the possibility of scaling (at least some elements of) higher education because they can draw on our experience with Facebook, rather than YouTube.

One huge problem with a videotaped lecture is that we know that instructional videos about science (and other disciplines where the learner starts with some beliefs, including mathematics) simply do not work.

In true MOOC fashion, we are now far enough in to my column that I should give you a multiple choice quiz. Here it is:

QUIZ: Where do trees get most of their mass?
1. From nutrients in the soil.
2. From the water
3. From the energy coming from the sun
4. From the air

When you have made your selection, take a look at this video to get the answer.

Done that? Did you notice the way the video was put together. Most of the video was devoted to the presenter (Derek Muller, who got his Ph.D. at the University of Sydney, Australia, a few years ago on the effectiveness of science videos) discovering people’s misconceptions. That certainly makes for “good television,” but does it have a place in an educational video? You bet it does.

The reason is, what is arguably the main finding of Muller’s research: that the principal effects of a well made, clear, instructional, science video are (1) to reinforce the viewer’s existing belief, whatever it is, and (2) to make that viewer even more confident in that belief. Nothwithstanding the fact that the video might present information that flatly contradicts the belief.

Muller summarized those findings in a critique of Khan Academy a couple of years ago, which is how I first came across his work. Anyone thinking of giving a MOOC should spend the eight minutes it takes to watch that video.

Since completing his doctorate and critiquing Khan, Muller has gone on to make a number of science videos. He is, clearly, still experimenting with the format (and I for one hope he continues to do so), and as a result, the videos are of varying quality. But a consistent theme is to begin with common misconceptions and force people to confront those erroneous beliefs.

Sure, this means getting people to say wrong things on camera, which can make some viewers feel uneasy. This has led to some criticism – though anyone you see on the final video has agreed to be shown, of course. He addresses this issue in an amusing fashion in another video. But the real point is that learning does involve confronting – and then correcting – our misconceptions. One of the most crucial abilities of a good teacher is to tell people they are wrong, and help them correct the error, without making them feel small or stupid.

The fact is, the experts make mistakes all the time. Indeed, an expert only achieves that status by having learned how to capitalize from being proved wrong, over and over again. In a sequel to the tree-mass video, Muller made another film about the mechanism trees use to acquire that mass, and in that video (which is truly amazing) you see three experts give the wrong answer.

So if videotaped instruction doesn’t work, how can we achieve learning in a MOOC? Well, there are not many things available. Other than the lecture videos, some screen-readable or downloadable course readings, and a few online quizzes, the only other possible source of learning within a MOOC is the body of other students. (In a physical class, the professor herself can play a role, but for a MOOC class of 60,000 or more, that’s clearly out of the question.)

That’s why I think MOOCs are more Facebook than YouTube, and why I think the key to making them anything more than just textbooks-on-steroids – an approach we know won’t work – is to learn how to structure them to encourage and support group collaborative work.