Tips for Instructional Videos: Here's What We Learned

Before I became a school teacher, my job was to help faculty at Berklee College of Music analyze what they do in the classroom and then repackage it for online instruction. Some of that work was to guide them in the conceptualizing and making of online videos. Because you asked (oh wait, you didn't) I wanted to share the underlying concepts that went into making our first instructional video for our fourth and fifth grade instrumental music students. This video is not going to win an Oscar or be nominated for Sundance, but there are a few elements that we hope will keep kids attention—and maybe they'll help you, too.

Look, if you're going to just talk at the camera for twelve minutes, you either have to look like Johnny Depp or Mila Kunis or offer Ted-Talk worthy, world-changing information. For the rest of us, there is editing, and you'll find that many of the concepts that determine what makes a musical composition work apply to video, too.

Here's our video. We like it. Following the video are the concepts that informed it. (If the video doesn't show up for you, here's the link.)

Structure. A clear beginning, middle, and end help the viewer stay engaged and it orients them in time.

Start with a story. Says every engaging public speaker ever. People love stories.

Pacing. The same concepts that back up a musical composition work in video: Long and short shots, fast and slow speaking, repetition and building of concepts, variety of on-screen text and no text.

Repetition. Important concepts were repeated, and in this case by different people. Remember: "Slowly." :"Slowly."  "Slowly." Did we plan this? No; it just worked out that way, and that was a lesson about practicing in and of itself.

Variety. We have different speakers in different settings, long and short shots, shots with text, shots without text, and we don't go on and on about anything.

On-Screen Text: This reinforces important concepts and addresses multiple learning styles. And I chose a font with round edges, so that it feels warm and accessible to kids.

Chunking of information. Information is paced in small, digestible bites.

Use video for simple concepts only. Save longer or complicated instruction for other formats; research says that video is not the best medium for complex instruction.

Personal connection. It's more interesting to watch people talk than it is to hear their voices, unless they are David Attenborough or James Earl Jones. I could listen to either of them all day.

Humor. I tucked it in at the end mostly because I couldn't help myself, and, like: Mrs. Gillander. She's fun! But, the underlying concept is this: This online learning thing we're doing is hard on kids and families. People learn best when they're not under stress. Humor breaks up the stress, lightens the mood, and opens pathways to learning.

Length. All the research on educational videos (and there's a ton) tells us: 2 to 5 minutes.

Color. Use color both in the shots and in the captions, if you feel like it. Thankfully, iMovie did the color selection for me.

Quality: Use the best quality footage you can. Do the best you can with what you have available. We learned a lot from this, and not all the shots are of equal quality, but we are all doing our best.

Framing: Don't center your subject in the middle of the screen, and use colorful or interesting but not distracting backgrounds. Here's a link: 13 Tips for More Professional Looking Videos. I didn't read it, but I'm going to for next time. We made a few mistakes in our video here, but we are learning.

Simple Tools: All I did was use iMovie's built-in stuff and I just did a whole lot of trial and error, and there was a learning curve, but it's not too steep. Don't forget: Our EdTV nine year olds use iMovie, too. You can do it.

Shoot the long way: Videos shot the tall way don't edit well.

Crop it closer?: The more personal the information you're delivering, the closer the shot should be. We all went for medium range. That seems about right, but we didn't get too fussy about that.

How long did it take: Yeah... well... here's the problem. This five-minute video took me almost eight hours to produce. But there are three ways to make that easier, and they are 1) planning, 2) planning, and 3) planning. Also, I know I'll get better the more I do it.

Refine your process: When we made this video, all I did was write to my colleagues and say, "Hey, can you send me a few videos of your best practice advice?" I gave no other instruction except "Shoot the long way, not the tall way" and off we went. We all feel awkward on camera, and none of us love the way we look on screen, but we're all too busy for makeup and lighting right now. And that's ok. I took the videos, I loosely strung them together along a set of practice tips that our department has been using, and I went from there. As a result, I had to watch and then delete a whole bunch of practice tips that were too instrument specific for our shared video. One way to avoid this is to outline first and then each take specific topics—but then maybe that would make the video too stiff and planned, less natural.  We all learned lessons about the importance of quality, color, light, and framing. But we didn't know those things til we did this once. Maybe our next one will be even better.

Balance what you want with the time you have: Perfectionism is the enemy of productivity. (I made that up but it sounds good.) I know this video would be better if we put a little music in, since this is what we're actually talking about. And also, a few shots of kids practicing would be great. But we only had a couple days to do this, and I don't know where those kids are, and we have to just be real here. We're all doing the best we can. (Have I mentioned repetition?)

We all learned a lot and now let's see how it works for the kids! We'll keep you posted.