I was challenged through a recent Twitter conversation to explore the process of creating good video lectures. I claimed it would take 15 hours to produce a good 1-hour video lecture:
Good video consists of a compelling narrative that presents facts and evidence in persuasive manner. Visual aids should be thoughtful and relevant, and the narration needs to be concise with the best possible audio quality. This takes time, but I think it’s worth it. In this post, I outline content guidelines a good video lecture, how to determine the length of the video, and some time estimates for how long each phase of production takes.
I recognize that for many people teaching online for the first time during the COVID-19 outbreak, these goals may not be realistic, because it will be more important to “just press record” and get some content posted. However, I would encourage you to weigh the demand for quantity and speed with the value of quality and good design.
The contents of a good video lecture
In my perspective, a good video lecture contains:
- A narrative that encapsulates the whole of the video (a message that runs through it)
- A compelling or persuasive aspect
- Interesting, relevant, and preferably self-created visual aids
- (Somewhat) planned but definitely thoughtful narration
First, a narrative running through a video is your attempt to hold your audience’s attention and hold the facts together. Two devices I like to use: historical progress of science, and comparing scientific viewpoints. Tell the history of a scientific advancement, like each of the major steps in discovering the role of DNA (we did that in my high school biology class in the 90s). Or, tell the history of the major advancements in each wave of psychology (how cognitive psychology overtook behaviorism in the 1970s). I think back to Dr. Dan Sachau’s course in organizational psychology and motivation more than a decade ago (when I was doing my master’s degree). He would have us think from the perspective of a cognitive psychologist challenging the assumptions of behaviorism; then the next week, we’d think from the perspective of a behaviorist pushing back. That narrative structure of comparison, of two fields fighting and arguing about the truth of human behavior, provided a very useful framework on which to place my knowledge of psychology.
Second, being persuasive is key for engaging the cognitive faculties of a learner. To be persuasive in an academic lecture, you assemble and present the facts in a way that makes a convincing argument. I think you should go a step further and warn the viewer that you are attempting to be persuasive. When someone is trying to persuade you, you either get persuaded or you actively looking for holes in the argument. On the contrary, if you are getting loose facts outside of a persuasive argument, you are left to make-up your own story, or more likely, you never get the point at all. So, a good video lecture might be closer to a lawyer using facts to make an argument. You can argue both sides, of course, or challenge the student to argue the opposing side.
Third, visual aids can make or break a video. Remember old-fashioned slide shows? Did you ever make slides with Ektachrome film? If you are a Gen-X’er or Boomer, you know what I’m talking about. You took pictures with an analog SLR camera, hoped you got the light exposure correct, drove 20 minutes to take the the film to a camera store, paid double the cost for rush developing, and then a few hours later you got your slides. After you did all of that work, you’d be damn sure to spend time and effort to explain the picture in your slide. Nobody took pictures of clip art.
I truly love a hashtag of the accessibility for learning movement: “explain your slides.” This is a call for a lecturer to explain to the viewer what they are seeing in a picture (and for those who cannot see, to give a mental picture). If it feels silly or irrelevant to explain something in your slides, maybe it should be removed. For instance, if you found yourself explaining clip art, you would probably remove it from your slides. Good choice.
Fourth, good narration will hold a video together. The experts say that you should script your video. I agree, but honestly, when I get to this point of video production, I am losing patience and scripts take time to write, read, and revise. If I have built the narrative arc of the video, then it’s easier to mentally rehearse the big ideas and record them in 90-120 second bursts. There are times when I need to re-record. I like to narrate one slide at a time, rather than trying to narrate the whole story in one-breath. Some Ron Burgundy vocal warm-up exercises are always useful.
What’s the value of great audio production? There are some who say, “just press record and start talking.” But it is worth noting the amount of production that goes into producing the audio you hear on top podcasts and radio shows. Alex Blumberg of Gimlet Media – the company that produces podcasts including StartUp, Science Vs., Reply-All, and Crimetown – explains it well in The Secret Formula of a good podcast (start around 22m 30s). And if you listen to National Public Radio in the US and happen to think all of that audio is spontaneous, you’re wrong, as you can hear in this feature Pulling Back the Curtain, produced by WNYC’s On The Media. Turns out great audio takes a lot of work, but it also does wonders for the listener’s ability to follow your story.
How long should a video lecture be?
Here’s my way to determine if your video is the right length. Think about teaching the course in a face-to-face classroom setting. If you recorded yourself teaching a typical 3-hour class, and then cut only the parts of the class when you were delivering knowledge in a didactic form, how long would that be? That estimate should eliminate:
- Time spent answering questions or in discussion-based learning
- Time spent elaborating an example beyond a clear explanation
- Time spent facilitating group work
- Time spent in small-talk or tangential discussion
The estimate I typically get is 40-45 minutes in a 3-hour class. That’s roughly 25% of time spent “delivering knowledge.” In one of our 80-minute undergraduate lectures, I would estimate no more than 25-30 minutes of pure content delivery.
It is important that your final video lecture should not be one uninterrupted 45-minute video. Instead, look for natural cut-points to break up a 45-minute video into a series of videos no longer than 5-7 minutes. This resource on producing educational video from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching suggests that the drop-off in video view completion begins for videos between 6-9 minutes.
I love tangential discussion and suspect that most academics do too. I’m not sure how much students like it and I’m not sure if it benefits learning. And when you see it out of context in a video lecture, it is even more “tangential.” Use a movie for a comparison. How many good movies have tangential arcs to the main arc of the narrative? When they do, it’s a thoughtful or deliberate tangent. So… you can have tangential points in your video lecture, if you make them thoughtful and deliberate. Spoiler alert: that takes a long time. There’s a reason it takes years to produce a 90-minute movie.
Technical Aspects of Producing a Video Lecture
I have not changed my technical process much since 2012 when I started using Camtasia for most of my video lectures. I like Camtasia because of the timeline layout, which is similar to using video editors like iMovie or Final Cut. I use static images for slides, which can be adjusted in the timeline to match the length of a voice-over, and this is critical if I want a video that contains both static images to moving video clips. Camtasia handles static images and voice-over very well, but it struggles to handle large volumes of HD video. So, if you’re planning to make video documentaries instead of paltry video lectures, look for a movie editor (e.g., Final Cut) instead.
This is a step-by-step process I use to create lecture videos:
- I export slides from PowerPoint to .jpg format at a resolution of 2560 x 1600 (for reference, HD is 1920 x 1080). I use Helvetica Neue for a font, it is one of the most readable for digital formats with one of the highest x-heights
- I import these slides to Camtasia. I drag a slide to the timeline, record the voice-over, edit the voice-over, and repeat. Sometimes I get very picky with editing long pauses and, umm… err… conversational fillers.
- I record voice-over using a microphone. I have a studio quality lavalier mic, but an iPhone headset works almost as well. It makes your voice sound very clear and present, reduces background noise, and also makes the automated captioning system about 97 percent accurate.
- I export the video lecture as an .mp4 file. If the video will only have still pictures, I reduce the frame rate to 10 frames per second (fps). That reduction cuts the file size dramatically, which makes streaming much easier for users without reliable, high-speed internet. The makers of Camtasia explain Frame Rate in this beginner’s guide.
- I upload movie files to Mediaspace, our university’s video server, where the videos are optimized for streaming playback. Rather than upload videos directly to our learning management system, I paste the embed code for each video into its own page within a module. This helps with accessibility.
How Long Does it Take to Produce a Video?
As universities and colleges push their instruction into the online space, many lecturers are finding for the first time just how time-and-resource-intensive it can be to teach online. They are on the steep-end of the learning curve and under pressure to meet timelines and learning objectives. That will make the process slower.
Here is my estimated breakdown of time-spent in producing a one-hour video:
- 35% – thinking and reflecting on findings and issues with the topic, how to communicate the topic best with a practitioner-audience, sketching out lecture objectives, assembling relevant facts/data, and building a narrative arc (some call this “story-boarding”)
- 30% – building slides (but I fuss over slides)
- 25% – recording and editing voice over and video
- 10% – exporting, uploading, and publishing (embedding) videos into a module in our learning management system
Total time to produce a 1-hour video is about 15 hours. So, that’s about 5.5 hours mapping out the story, 4.5 hours building slides, about 3.5 hours to create quality, concise voice-overs, and another 1.5 hours getting the video uploaded and embedded. I can multitask while I wait for the upload, but it still takes time.
So, let’s say you already have your narrative arc, your facts, and your slides are mostly built, because this is how you typically lecture in your face-to-face courses. You’re still looking at about 5 hours to produce and publish a video that has the requisite level of quality you would expect to deliver to your students.
You could certainly take a shortcut and reduce the amount of time you spend recording a video, not putting much effort into getting the story in good shape. You could do that and meet your requirement to lecture for an hour. But why not go for quality over quantity? Could you reduce the total time of your lecture but make it better? That’s a challenge to consider.
- Producing high quality lecture videos takes time – specifically, about 15 hours to produce 1-hour of quality video. That number can decrease if your existing lectures are very good already.
- Narrative structure, persuasion, meaningful visual aids, and top-notch audio are difference-makers in the final product’s quality
- The video lecture should consist of the didactic knowledge delivery portion of a traditional, classroom-based course meeting
- Camtasia is a great technical process for me, but I’ve been working with it for 8 years and don’t feel like jumping to another process and being on the steep part of a new learning curve
- Producing good video takes substantial time at all phases; you need to choose where to spend your time