microlecture multimedia Multimedia Systems Richard Mayer Roxana Moreno

Reflection on best, worst multimedia experiences and … the microlecture!

In reflecting on the best and worst multimedia learning experiences we’ve had…  OK, first off, bar none, the worst multimedia I have ever seen is ophthalmology surgery videos produced for residents and doctors. You can’t unsee that stuff! Blah! I worked for about two years on a pilot project with ophthalmologists, and they just forget sometimes that the average person does not do eyeball surgeries all day. However, I was a constant font of amusement for my colleagues, especially when they whipped out a new video in the middle of a teaching session that was supposed to be about, say, using Blackboard. “Hah, hah, Patience, we forgot you were here.” Blah.

Despite the fact that I love films, love “quality” television, radio, audio drama, and spend a good deal of time writing about or on these kinds of multimedia experiences – I honestly think a lot of educational multimedia, especially video, is terrible, simply because it’s too long and it’s structured as a content dump, not as an opportunity for learning that will have a student itching to solve a problem or tackle the reading. I may have watched “Star Trek IV” 500 times, which suggests something about my attention span, but I swear those animatronic whales from 1986 are much more engaging than most talking head videos shot yesterday that run 50 minutes.

A decade ago, one of the first internal clients I had at the community college where I was working was a professor who was teaching a programming class (needless to say this was NOT Roger). He decided to record all of the classes – from start to finish – as audio “podcasts” (but in a Windows media format that was not syndicated, which required the school’s streaming server). It wasn’t a literary or philosophy class where a discussion that was audio-only would have still been very valuable to someone who had missed the class; you might not necessarily know who said every comment or idea if you didn’t recognize their voice, but you didn’t need images to explain to you what was going on.

Again, for a programming class? Yeah, you needed to see what was going on – or a short, very structured audio download that could be replayed. Because it was audio and streamed, listeners also could not easily jump to specific playback locations until the audio rolled to that point in the timeline: videos on the other hand, usually have some affordance that helps us understand where we are, either a visual of what’s happening on the screen, or chapter headings similar to the DVD. I did try to explain to him why this didn’t seem to be the best strategy (he was open to making more chunked videos, though).

By the way, not sure if others had this experience when making multimedia for internal clients: I found it was very difficult explaining why, from a perspective of dual-coding theory and lowering cognitive load (eg seminal work by Richard Mayer and Roxana Moreno), that it was not optimal to both have a voiceover saying specific words, while the same words appear on the screen.

Similarly: when I began working at a health science center, and learned that medical school students were skipping classes, but watching recorded lectures at double-speed, I was appalled. Then I began to look at a lot of the videos they were speeding through, which were generally screencasts of PowerPoints. Medical learning has a reputation for being “cutting edge”, but often, it’s really not. And that’s not necessarily bad. During the next year I had an opportunity to watch a video of a seasoned opthalmologist, teaching a group of residents about plastics, including orbital floor reconstruction, which is necessary in cases where someone has broken the bone under their eye. (This is a “do not Google images” topic. I swear.) Anyone watching that video would not have seen slides, or anything gruesome: they would have seen the surgeon surrounded by his residents as they drew lines on each other’s faces and on a blank pad, to understand the orbital bone and where they would need to do the “plastic” work. Anyone who watched that video on an away rotation (every resident had to go to rural posts periodically during the three year residency) would have been able to immediately understand the active learning they could practice, if not with another resident, then with a willing friend and a Wet n’ Wild eyebrow pencil. To my cohort of doctoral classmates —  well, it still might not be the most exciting bit of multimedia we might ever want to watch, but you couldn’t miss how engaged the learners were.

So, in short, the best multimedia experiences I have had involve shorter videos where the purpose and audience were taken seriously.

And the best of the best?  Ten years ago I first read about the concept David Penrose had popularized, the “microlecture”. I am sorry that his concept didn’t take off to the degree that Ted Talks have. Creating a microlecture doesn’t just mean that the video or audio file is shorter in length. His idea was very structured, you design it in a specific way to elicit active learning, and if possible, it could be reusable, too. I did an explanatory video about it in 2009, in response to a request from the then-Vice President for Learning at my campus.

This video is very crude – we were still using GL2 cameras, low quality microphones and other equipment until the budget came in to replace what we had. And there are words popping up on the screen (because it was another year before I discovered Meyer and Moreno!). But crude is OK; still images with a voiceover is OK; crude animation is OK; what’s really important is whether the student is engaged.

Here’s my explanatory video from 2009 (about thirty seconds have been edited out, which are about my colleague and me, and where our office was located on campus!):

Then “Seasons and Syllables” was my first attempt at an educational microlecture, and although I’m embarrassed by things I would have done differently, it holds up passably. Even with a very long credits sequence (which is mandated if you are using a lot of Creative Commons-licensed materials), it only runs 3 minutes. More importantly, several professors saw it and immediately felt that this was something they could do. One ended up creating three microlectures with me on extremely difficult literary theories: postcolonialism, feminist literary theory, and the new historicism. Again, what strikes me when I look at them again 8 or 9 years later is the technical crudeness, mine and my equipment. But I appreciate that in about five or so minutes these undergraduate students are encouraged to think about really challenging topics, and apply them.

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