1. It’s not traditional e-learning

Video is a breed apart from e-learning. By “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, however, and it’s quite the expenditure of energy. These quasi-books-on-screen are, for many of us, our context and rut.

As we approach video, then, there’s a danger of seeing it as the latest ornament to hang on our e-learning (because, deep down, many of us still can’t conceive of 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 sets video apart is its immediacy. I use the word deliberately because it means, “no medium.” 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 as if we’re looking through this medium. The physical format 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 only 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 a specialized medium. The medium is not e-learning and shouldn’t be confused with it.

3. Beware of tacking it on.

Combining these points, we should resist “tacking on.”

This not 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 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, titled, Meatball Sundae. His metaphor spoke to this principle of tacking stuff to fundamentally incompatible things. There’s nothing wrong with meatballs. Nor whipped cream or bananas. But combining them 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 must separate traditional e-learning creation from video creation. They are breeds apart, requiring a 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 yadda, yadda, yadda, and bla, bla, bla.” No, we speak to each other like human beings. We speak simply, humanely. 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 often pre-visualized as storyboards before the director calls “action.” If not on paper, then in the director’s mind.

Visual storytelling requires a separate set of skills and sensibilities. It’s a different medium and it takes time, experience, and a firm handle on its specialized grammar to get comfortable in this medium.

5. We’re gonna need a bigger skillset.

Instructional Systems Design borrowed less from the arts than the sciences (like psychology, behaviorism, cognitive theory) and so it expresses itself differently than narrative forms. 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. As I’ve described, the ISD system suffers from a left-brained tilt toward the sciences rather than the arts. This makes functional sense and appeals to the left-brain, but it’s a mistake from which the L&D field has yet to recover.

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.” 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, and if you’re presenting things visually, then you’re crafting the window I described earlier.

But Story is deep craft. To do it well requires awesome nun-chuck skills. The fact is, many of us weren’t foundationally taught these skills, and you can’t simply annoint an ISD as a visual storyteller. ISDs and skilled storytellers are breeds apart.

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.

It’s not just cranky students whining. There’s something to the stigma.

If network television esteemed storytelling with our industry’s level of regard, we’d greet their fall line-up the way learners do our content and go to the dentist, instead.

Now, to counterbalance my criticism, which is somewhat a rhetorical strategy, I hasten to say that there are many who “get” this in our industry and, like Nike, are doing it. Experimenting, gaining skills, and thinking outside the e-learning box.

One area that interests me intensely is scenario based learning. You don’t need a camera at all for it (and we must realize that it’s a mistake to reach for such equipment too quickly). The truth is, story is as verbal as it is visual, and text is still the killer app. If our industry would master text first (we haven’t, for all the aforementioned reasons), then we’d position ourselves better to take up cameras.

As we set our sights on video as a new(er) frontier, our priorities and skills must shift if we are to engage with it competently. If we can’t grow the skills, we must import new talent (visual grammarians who think like TV producers). Only then might we bust our ruts and powerfully connect with learners.


Anthony Rotolo is a creative director and learning practitioner who manages e-learning programs for the award-winning Defense Acquisition University.