6 YouTube lessons for building better instructional videos

With the rise of the blended learning model of education, video is becoming an increasingly important medium for instruction. The essential components of blended learning - such as flipped classrooms, MOOCs and “Bring Your Own Device” programs - are facilitated by video instruction to ensure the personalization and flexibility of a digitized education system.

Over the last few years, a wave of YouTube channels has emerged to deliver high quality educational content in an accessible, engaging format. Although instructional and lecture videos can be found all over YouTube, these channels distinguish themselves by employing strategies to appeal to audiences. While they do not follow a typical school curriculum, and should certainly not replace one, their success on YouTube serves as a useful guide for instructors seeking to make the most out of video learning.

Here are six takeaways from these channels:

1. Condensed Time Length

Sometimes, the most compelling videos are short and to the point. Just a few minutes are devoted to allowing viewers to easily grasp the fundamentals of a particular subject before they decide to pursue it in greater depth. For example, C.C.P. Grey’s video on the debt ceiling gives an overview of the budgetary decision making process between congress and the president in under four minutes. A big advantage of putting short yet informative presentations in a video format is that if speaker is ever going too fast, it is easy to go back and hear parts of the presentation a second time.


2. Graphics   

Eye-catching graphics play an important role in making videos both accessible and entertaining. As educational YouTube channels show, this can be achieved in different ways. Crash Course includes an animated “thought bubble” feature for each video in addition to images complementing the lecture. PBS Ideas Channel displays a constant stream of pictures and GIFs from popular culture alongside the host’s presentation.


3. Pique Curiosity

If the introduction of a video piques curiosity, the viewer will be more likely to follow through with the entire presentation. This is why many educational YouTube channels craft their titles and opening segments to draw the audience in. Vsauce titles each of its videos to sound as mentally stimulating as possible, posing a question that presents a simple aspect of life as a gateway to a deeper exploration of a multitude of subjects. Examples include “Will We Ever run Out of New Music?” and “Why Do We get Bored?”. Another strategy, as seen in this video by Veritasium, involves an opening scene in which some action is taking place. This provides a nice illustration of the topic before it is discussed in greater depth.  


4. Host Personality

The success of educational YouTube channels owes a lot to the charisma of their hosts. Regardless of how interesting the subject is on its own, the ability of instructors to make both the subject and themselves more interesting makes a big difference in how students approach the material. Furthermore, establishing a student-teacher relationship as less of a purely academic one and more of a supportive community of learners is dependent on the instructor’s conduct. Crash Course’s John and Hank Green are seasoned hosts on YouTube who have built a community of fans they like to call “nerd fighters”. Vsauce’s host Michael attracts his following by showing enthusiasm and indulging on quirky, nerdy humor.   


5. Animated Notes

Another strategy for appealing educational videos is to explain the topic through creative note-taking rather than a face staring into the camera. Vihart accompanies its math notes with frequent doodling and often shows how geometry can be used to create beautiful doodles. Minute Physics also uses illustrated notes to explain concepts in a way that’s easy to understand.   


6. Real World Setting

Videos that go outside of a classroom or studio setting enable the audience to see a particular topic in action. This is a helpful strategy for engaging students because it encourages curiosity about everyday situations and shows how classroom material is applicable to the larger world. The YouTube channel Smarter Every Day does this for each of their videos by explaining natural phenomena with a high speed camera.  

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Filed Under: Higher Ed K12 Technology Online Learning