1. It’s not traditional e-learning
Video is a breed apart from e-learning. When I say “e-learning”, I refer to the traditional, pervasive form that learning has taken in our age, with a usability experience consisting of “click-click-click,” “next,” and “back.” We navigate in this manner because e-learning uses a book metaphor. With the advent of computer-based training and the browser, we took the old book-and-page model and replicated it on screens. It made sense. We could acclimate users to electronic delivery in an intuitive manner and it has been our preoccupation ever since. Combine the challenges of authoring good content with technical and compliance concerns, and it’s quite the expenditure of energy. These quasi-books-on-screen are, for many of us, our entire context and rut. As we approach the prospect of video, then, there’s a danger of seeing it as merely the latest ornament to hang on our e-learning (because we can’t imagine e-learning as anything other than some kind of a book), and that would be a design mistake.
2. It’s a window to other people.
What mainly sets video apart is its immediacy. I’m using the word, immediate deliberately because it means, literally, “no medium.” That’s to say that we’re less aware of the means through which we’re receiving content (when the illusion is working), as compared to, say, tin cans and string or a paperback novel or a telephone. By immediate, we should think, “windows, not screens,” because it’s like we’re looking through the screen. It recedes and the content comes to the fore. And what is the content? The content is people! Video is a window to people with whom we achieve identification. When it works, it conveys emotional power. And that’s the secret we should tattoo on our minds if we’re going to approach this format correctly. Make no mistake, the challenge is not technical. It’s not about lenses or microphones. It’s about the right approach. It’s a design challenge. It’s about how we’re going craft our content for the camera.
3. Beware of tacking it on.
Combining the first two points, we should resist the mentality of “tacking on.” This isn’t to say video can’t work as content in traditional e-learning, but video isn’t just another element to be added on — an occasional maraschino cherry applied as a sweetener. Video is fundamentally different, a format with unique requirements. Video is about connecting people, putting our audience in contact with people and stories in powerful ways. And because it’s different, we need to handle it differently. Author Seth Godin wrote a book several years back about social media, titled, Meatball Sundae. His metaphor spoke to this principle of tacking things on. There’s nothing wrong with meatballs. But adding whipped cream and all the trimmings just makes an unappetizing mess. In business, it’s tempting to strap on new capabilities to an underlying model, while failing to see their incompatibility. Likewise, we have to separate traditional e-learning creation from video creation. They are breeds apart, requiring a somewhat different approach and process.
4. Visual (and Verbal) Storytelling is the key.
We’ve said that video is about people. And how do people talk to each other — like text books? “In this module, you will learn bla, bla, bla.” No, we speak to each other like human beings. We relate experiences. We identify with one another. We tell stories. Storytelling is key, but, remember, video appeals to eyes (and ears), so the most effective means of conveying our stories is through visual storytelling. You’ve heard the old writer’s adage, “show, don’t tell”. This distills to the technique of limiting exposition and, instead, crafting what master editor, Sol Stein, calls “immediate scenes.” We write so readers can see the action in their mind’s eye. In video, we write for the screen. This is why films are pre-visualized as storyboards before the director calls “action,” if not on paper, then in the director’s mind. Visual storytelling requires an additional set of sensibilities. It’s a different medium of authoring and it can take time and practice to get comfortable with it.
5. We’re gonna need a bigger skillset.
Instructional Systems Design borrowed less from the arts than it did the sciences (like psychology, behaviorism, cognitive theory) and so it tends to express itself differently than narrative styles of writing. We shouldn’t be surprised that we cast our content differently than, say, a sports writer or a novelist. Yet our brains are wired for Story since time immemorial. I believe this age-old form of knowledge transfer is fundamentally overlooked because of the shortcomings of Instructional Systems Design that I’ve described, that tilt toward the sciences rather than the arts.
Story adds emotional resonance to information, causing us to invest in those goal-pursuers we call “characters” (analog of our “learners” with their learning objectives). Marketers know all this. They’re expert in targeting the emotional side of our reasoning powers, not just the rational, factual side. They include the right hemisphere. This is a powerful principle, but we miss the opportunity to use it in our teaching.
The drone I mentioned earlier? “In this module, you will bla, bla, bla, bla”. It causes eyes to glaze over. Recast factual information as a story, no matter how simple, and see what a difference it makes. “I thought I’d seen it all. But then my boss handed me the project challenge of my career…” Story. Your audience’s ears perk up. You’re gaining and sustaining attention because now your audience is relating to someone’s experience.
But Story is a craft. To do it well requires skills and a mindset that many of us weren’t foundationally taught . No wonder, then, that the capability isn’t found in many learning organizations. Instead, it’s been treated as an add-on (there’s that tacking-on principle again), a technique you might use as a sweetener. But its neglect is a mistake, and I believe this accounts for why so much of our instructional content is regarded as boring. There’s something to the stigma. If network television esteemed storytelling with our level of regard, we’d greet their fall line-up the way learners do our content and go to the dentist, instead. As we set our sights on video as The Next Thing, this attitude must shift if we are to engage with it competently. We need new skills or else identify new talent (those who think like TV producers) if we’re to bust out of our rut and powerfully connect with learners.
Anthony Rotolo manages e-learning programs for the award-winning Defense Acquisition University