By Talia Greenblatt-Kolodny, Coursera Partner Learning and Development Manager, and Barbara Oakley, Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning at McMaster University
When Barbara Oakley was experimenting in her basement with a new camera and an inexpensive green cloth, she never imagined her Coursera course, Learning How to Learn would become the world’s most popular open online course. But it did, and Learning How to Learn continues to help learners around the globe improve their ability and confidence when approaching challenging subjects.
Now a seasoned online instructor, Barb says that a great online course reflects “the melding of academia, Silicon Valley, and a little bit of Hollywood.” Bringing in that Hollywood component without a Hollywood-level budget requires some creativity, but Barb has collaborated with the Teaching and Learning team at Coursera to share a few tips for doing just that.
Here are the seven ingredients that make up our online teaching “secret sauce”:
ONE: VISUALS AND MULTIMEDIA
Online lecture videos lend themselves to imagery, so using frequent visual representations will enhance your teaching. If your visuals are complex, add them in part-by-part to help learners with their cognitive load. Remember that some of the best teaching tools, metaphors and analogies, are often best conveyed with visual images.
Because stock imagery is so accessible, it can be tempting to use it to enhance your course—but too much can feel impersonal. Occasional moving visuals such as gifs and video snippets can be especially helpful in lending liveliness when inserted into your videos. Draw from a variety of sources – here are some ideas:
- Wikipedia can be a great source for images, gifs, and videos. Pay special attention to copyrights, and acknowledge them as necessary at the end of your video.
- Videoblocks is a good, relatively inexpensive source for videos.
- Your own “homemade” photos and videos can be valuable for adding a personal element, and will be very well-received by your learners. Remember to get photo and video releases as necessary if anyone other than you is featured.
- Animations are effective but costly to produce, so use them sparingly for key ideas.
- Music at key points can be valuable in helping learners become truly immersed in your teaching. A reasonably priced source of music is Pond5.
This video snippet from the first video of Learning How to Learn shows a simple visual metaphor that conveys the two very different modes of operation of the brain. Barb can walk around in the metaphor, which makes it more vivid and tangible for learners.
Motion is known to catch the attention of the viewer. In evolutionary terms, areas of our brains are activated in defense when we sense motion, as things that loom closer may kill us! Hand gestures and facial expressions don’t count as motion—they are too predictable. Try interacting with the video in surprising ways, and don’t hesitate to look silly: duck, point, grasp and pull words, images and objects around you that may appear later in the edited version.
This video snippet shows a green screen studio, how it’s put together, why motion in a video is important, and an example of how to script.
Writing a script might seem daunting, but planning is key! Scripts will help you visualize your materials and identify places to insert images and movement. Writing a script in advance can help you avoid using highly academic terms that are not accessible to a global, diverse audience.
The Hemingway app or similar tools can help you simplify your script. Another great resource is Grammarly. Barb likes to read her script aloud to her husband to catch infelicities and find areas to simplify. We also recommend reading the script just before filming, sometimes several times, to get your mouth used to what it will be saying.
Unlike regular classes, where a bad teaching day is quickly forgotten, the videos that you create for your online course remain constantly in view and have the potential for extraordinary impact. It is worth taking the time to do things right.
Use a touch of humor to make learning an enjoyable experience, and to help establish trust between instructor and learner. Videos are an obvious place to integrate humor, but you can also drop a lighthearted line in quiz questions, or even in quiz answer feedback. When using humor, make sure you are creating an inclusive learning environment; remember that you will have learners from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Visual humor seems to work especially well across diverse cultures. Don’t forget that you can place images and gifs in quizzes, both in the question and the feedback.
Humor can be used in a variety of ways. Notice here how Barb is interacting with the video medium. The anatomical head, which could have been a static, boring image, has Barb scooting away in dismay.
It’s easy to say “be yourself,” and much harder to do it, especially on camera! Almost everyone needs some tips and reminders to help with delivery when filming an online course. Here are a few key things to keep in mind:
- Stay positive. When you are trying to convey difficult ideas, your brow can furrow, and you can inadvertently look angry. Try to avoid this. Instead, keep an upbeat demeanor.
- Enunciate. Careful enunciation can sometimes seem affected, but a slightly mumbled word can lose its meaning entirely for someone from halfway around the world who speaks English as an additional language. So take care with your pronunciation, even if it seems a little odd at first.
- Don’t over-analyze. You can be your most critical audience: a misplaced dollop of hair, wrinkle in a shirt, or hesitation in your speech can be irritating when you review your video. But learners won’t care about these quirks. Some will even find them endearing. Try watching people on television with the same critical eye. You’ll soon discover that even the pros make some of the same “mistakes” you criticize yourself for.
Even if you are not working with a professional production team, having the right camera, teleprompter, green screen, lighting, and microphone can make a significant impact on the quality of your videos. Here are some recommendations:
- 4K Camera: Sony PXWZ100 4K Handheld XDCAM Memory Camcorder (Black) The 4K ability of this camera allows you to zoom from full body to half body, providing the illusion of motion. Put your camera settings on manual (not automatic), and pay careful attention to white balance and focus.
- 24” Teleprompter: Prompter PeoplePro-24 ProLine 24 Teleprompter. A 24” teleprompter reduces squinting when shooting with the camera further back for full body shots.
- Tripod: Davis & Sanford PROVISTA7518B Pro Video Tripod with V18 Fluid Head.
- Editing program: Adobe Premiere Pro CC. This is the industry standard software.
- Audio system: Shure BLX14R/W85 Wireless Presenter Rack Mount System with WL185 Lavalier Microphone, J10
- Green screen cloth: Square Perfect 4037 Professional Quality 10 x 13 Feet Chromakey Green Screen Muslin Backdrop for Photography and Video. A longer cloth allows you to stand three to four feet away from the green screen so that a light can be pointed behind you to eliminate shadows.
- Green screen stand: LimoStudio Photo Video Studio 10Ft Adjustable Muslin Background Backdrop Support System Stand, AGG1112.
- Lighting Kit: LimoStudio 700W Photography Softbox Light Lighting Kit Photo Equipment Soft Studio Light Softbox 24″X24″, AGG814 If you are shooting green screen, you will want two of these kits (a total of 4 lights) to complement the faster shutter speed you’ll need to avoid “green between the fingers” when moving your hands. You can easily find YouTube videos to help you set up a green screen studio and the associated lighting.
Learning How to Learn is a now a global movement, and this was largely thanks to an engaged and motivated community of learners, alumni, and mentors. We recommend growing and developing your course community. Engage learners in activities and polls throughout the course. Add discussion prompts and ask them to share their experiences. Send them resources and interesting book recommendations even after they complete, make them feel valued, and motivate them to keep learning!
If you want to learn more about LHTL “behind the scenes”, take a look at Barb’s new course Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential. Week 4 in particular has a number of videos that delve into the art of creating an online course.
If you would like to learn more about creating engaging video lectures in your course, and you are already a Coursera partner, take a look at this article from our Partner Resource Center: Creating Engaging Videos.
If you are a Coursera partner and have insights you would like to share on our blog about your teaching experience, please share them here.
We’re here to guide you through your course creation journey and look forward to seeing the impact your courses will have on learners around the globe!15