Videos to support learning in MOOCs

In this article I consider why videos and other multimedia that enable narrative and storytelling are prevalent in the learning design of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). During the last #LTHEchat on hybrid learning spaces, there was a side-discussion on the significance of the internet and how it allows for new types of learning to occur within it with immediacy of interaction, but also enables forms of learning supported by rapid sharing of data. As part of this discussion Sally Burr @sallyburruk tweeted an off-the-cuff remark that illustrated the way good connectivity, changes the learning experience: “MOOCs for example are all video.”

Learning with videos in MOOCs

Whilst the statement that MOOCs are solely video resources isn’t wholly true, the sentiment that video is a core component to learning on MOOCs may well be. FutureLearn, as one example, emphasise ‘storytelling’ and examples as a pedagogical basis for courses on their MOOC platform (FutureLearn, N.D.). Addressing ‘big questions’ lends course design to television-style documentary narratives, capturing the audience’s attention and connecting ideas to real-life situations. The use of multimedia (whether videos, screencasts or just audio), takes advantage of the flexibility of good internet connectivity Burr alludes to, in order to provide an alternative type of learning resource to reams of text, but crucially also to open up the possible learning opportunities. As Caspi et al. (2005, p.32) summarise of instructional videos, there a different types: “demonstration, narrative, and recorded lectures.” By using these different types of video in combination, learners on MOOCs are given different learning experiences. Whilst MOOCs may be packed full of videos, that doesn’t mean all MOOCs are the same. MOOCs are generally written for a particular group of learners, and as such the use of video similarly varies to attempt to meet the learning objectives of the course and best support that specific group of learners. Here, we will look at where videos have been used to support specific learning experiences in five MOOC courses.

Storytelling in videos as distraction or aid to learning

Storytelling and learning through storytelling is supported through the appropriate use of videos in MOOCs. The use of stories to scaffold learning in certainly not new, but as Robin (2008) explained, the use of new forms of media enables storytelling to play a significant part in online learning experiences. Throughout MOOCs, videos have been used to share the stories of experts and those with experience to those without such experience or access. They also form a “hook to capture the attention of students and increase their interest in exploring new ideas” (Robin, 2008, p.222). However, Mayer (2001) in his seminal work on the cognitive load effects of multimedia suggested a tension between the ideas of video designed to piques learners’ interest and engage them visually, versus videos without “seductive details” that are distracting to the overall learning aim. In MOOCs though, the videos tend to be short and designed to achieve a specific objective or support a stage in an activity that leads towards a specific learning outcome. As such, individually they tend to adopt Mayer’s principles to limit negative impacts on learning from cognitive overload, but still fit within a broader picture or sequence of tasks that allows both “retention” and “transference” learning through activity involving the multimedia (Mayer, 2001, p.16). Videos also act as motivational elements to the course, deliberately being ‘seductive’ enough to encourage the learner to progress through the text-based content on the course. Whilst not all videos in MOOCs may be ‘telling a story’, they are at the most powerful where they include a narrative that connects the content, the educator and the learner.

Videos to demonstrate

Taking the first of Caspi et al.’s video types, demonstrating, ‘Teaching for Success: Lessons and Teaching’ by British Council use recordings of classroom practice to illustrate teaching technique. In one particular example, the concept of lesson plans is introduced, then learners are expected to identify how elements of a lesson plan come through from a short clip of real classroom practice. The lesson plan is then explored in more detail, before the learners are expected to apply the theory into practice. Video demonstrations are used as they enable, as Caspi et al. (2005) suggested, an opportunity to witness what might not otherwise be possible by the learner. Whilst Caspi et al. refer to processes and procedures of a medical setting, this example considers the professional process of designing, implementing and delivering a lesson plan.

Video is hence a powerful tool to allow learners to experience, albeit second-hand, the professional practice of others. Certainly in the MOOC setting, it would be difficult for all participants to arrange a lesson audit or peer-review if perhaps they are restricted by location or limited opportunities. This type of video-based learning was found by Moreno (2007) to support learners in their ability to identify theoretical principles in case examples and transfer concepts to new contexts. Being able to apply new knowledge is for many, a much more rewarding and meaningful learning experience than simply recalling it. In fact, one of the pertinent findings from Moreno (2007) was that in terms of knowledge transference, there was little difference in performance between learners without video compared to learners presented with a lecture-type video. However, with appropriate chunking of video content learners’ performance improved. The ‘Teaching for Success’ course places this small excerpt from classroom practice within the context of a sequence of task. Thus, video is used to its full potential by keeping duration short and direct in supporting a specific learning objective, and embedding it within a learning activity that scaffolds the learner to extract and apply new knowledge demonstrated by the video. The case example in the video is authentic, and in doing so is a type of ‘real-life’ story that learners are witness to. Perhaps Burr’s tweet could be amended to ‘MOOCs, for providing examples, are all video’? However, not all MOOCs use video to demonstrate case examples and some aim to replicate the face-to-face learning and teaching environment.

Video lectures in MOOCs

Whilst some subjects lend themselves easily to the forms of storytelling video explained by Robin (2008), pure science is a little harder to convey in such a manner. As such, there is a tendency to remove the ‘story’ element in order to explain the scientific detail and process. One course example of how video has been used for more traditional lectures in MOOCs is ‘The Discovery of the Higgs Boson’ by University of Edinburgh. Here a series of lecturers team-teach using chalkboards in roughly 15 minute chunks. The videos provide all the MOOC content starting with the maths and physics foundation before going into specific details of the Higgs boson in subsequent weeks. Just like lectures on a campus-based course, the style varies a little and that’s reflected in the reception both of the academic content and lecturer’s personality as shown in comments from learners. It seems justifiable for video to be used in this way, as the building up of a mathematical derivations is best done visually, rather than expecting the learner to follow the flow simply through written texts. The videos show the thought process of a physicist or mathematician and that is part of the mechanism for teaching the subject (Pritchard, 2010).

The role of these videos is quite clearly not for a conversational narrative and the storytelling process is more about the unravelling of the mathematics that leads a learner towards understanding complex ideas later. Yet, without using the videos and the particular affordances the visual medium brings to explaining the academic content, the rest of the learning process has no basis. In this course, learning from each other is necessarily second-place to learning from the academic. Social learning, championed by MOOC designers, still exists as an aspect that the platform supports through a comments feature on every page, and is a way to allow for informal conversation between learners and educators, akin to the classroom chatter or approaching the lecturer at the end to clarify a point. The narrative story for this course does not exist within the video itself, but comes from linking the videos together, and in a sense, allowing learners to link their understanding between topics.

Narrative videos supporting learning in MOOCs

Taking Caspi et al.’s second type of video, one course that has used ‘narrative’ very well is ‘Environmental Challenges: scarcity and conflict in the natural environment’ by University of Leeds. For a short, two-week course, it explores some challenging concepts that help to understand global issues. The complex interactions of negotiation and conflict resolution are illustrated with detailed examples from real life, providing a relatable basis for the theory to build upon. The videos work in two ways, either as dispassionate mini-lecture on theory and practical techniques, or as emotive case studies to stress the importance of the topic and provide context. Both videos are ‘talking-head’ style of the lead educator, but the message addresses a different learning aim.

The storytelling approach links the academic content to examples, hooks the learner in and motivates them to follow the story and how it unfolds. Storytelling also has a purpose to support communities of learners. Gold (1997) discussed the significance of storytelling in organisational learning, particularly as a way of bridging different perspectives on cultural issues:

“The reality is constructed narratively through stories that members [of an organisational community] relate to each other and sense-making and learning can only occur when such stories make reference to an already developed story that provides a context.”

Gold (1997, p.139).

Conflict and negotiation are also inherently about the human condition, so it makes sense to convey the emotive and subjective topic matter with a medium that allows pace, tone and imagery to best communicate it. MOOCs are spaces where potentially thousands of people are learning, typically independently and isolated from each other in both time and place. Generating a human connection may be very difficult using text alone, therefore videos in MOOCs serve a purpose not just to convey content, but in some cases to elicit a personal response. By telling a story, allowing a learner to relate it to their own context, they can form their own story about their experiences. Perhaps one that is shared by other learners and offers the stimulus for discussion.

Expert presence via videos in MOOCs

Such stimulus may come also from a more direct use of video to represent a personal or professional perspective. In ‘Business Fundamentals: Effective Communication’ by Open University, the course draws upon a small group of professionals from different fields. Each explains how the various topics introduced in the course are enacted in their own context. The videos are a way of bringing the learner into that context, arguably learning vicariously from the recorded experience of others, in order to transfer new ideas to their own professional practice. The video interviews are not suggesting any single way of doing things, if anything they provide more option and interpretation of theory covered in the text. Some practices discussed in the videos might also be inappropriate for a learner’s specific context, but in the same way that we would talk about professional practice face-to-face, the learner is then encouraged to process, analyse, apply as appropriate. Certain professionals or perspectives may resonate with the learner, others may be discarded.

Most of the course takes the form of written explanation and exercises. The use of video here has been near enough reserved for the purpose of expert example or second opinion, similar to inviting a guest panel to interject with illustrative examples. Again, this is one of the strengths of MOOC design, to draw upon a range of voices, contexts, stories, to create a richer basis for the learning content. However, the learner must also be part of these voices for discussion, to feel as if they can respond to the pre-recorded ideas and learn through interactivity with others.

Supporting community-building in MOOCs with video

The video or audio of an educator is important for MOOCs, even in light of conclusions made by Dey et al. (2009) who suggested no significant influence on student learning as a result of lecturer videos in a screencast (note, in light of comments above about discipline specific requirements of video, that Dey et al. reported on a trial in physics). Bollinger et al. (2010), which although related to audio-only podcasts, emphasised the link between a multimedia presence of educator and student motivation. The feedback from their students showed how the podcasts provided structure to the content, from an effectiveness point of view needed to be short and succinct to digest, and were a useful device to keep attention. Most interesting for MOOC design with the array of disparate learners, are what Bollinger et al. described as “social-oriented” factors. These are best illustrated through the examples from participant feedback:

“I like the connection of hearing the instructor’s voice.”

“It  made the class feel like there really was someone else at the other end, not just a computer.”

“It adds a human-touch aspect to what might remain voiceless and faceless in this delievery medium.”

Bollinger et al. (2010, p.719).

The use of audio-only podcasts complements videos in ‘Soils’ by Lancaster University. The videos are largely instructional, explaining concepts and introducing ideas. The audio-only recordings are used in the introduction to activities and summing-up steps each week. Audio is much quicker to produce and easier to create high quality resources (due to ease of editing, not having to worry about visual elements) compared to a professional-standard video setup. The video production has been allocated to where there is clear pedagogic, instructional value, for example site visits which learners, for the most part, are unlikely to be able to go to themselves (Caspi et al.’s ‘demonstration’ video type) and for explanations of activities that require clear guidance in order for the learner to get the most out of them, for example surveying.

In order to maintain the ‘educator presence’, even though the course is at distance and mainly light touch facilitation by the educators, the audio reminds the learner of the academic steer behind the content and indeed the personal touch of being guided through the topic. The use of multimedia for storytelling in this case is then not just about the course content, but also a reflection of the learning journey the learner is taking.


Even for all the pedagogic value video (or audio) brings, for online, distance education, the use of multimedia is key to the motivation of learners and building the relationship between learner and educator. In the case of student-generated video (or indeed other forms of multimedia content) there’s a further opportunity to create relationships through visual media, rather than just the exchange of text-based comments. The power of narrative media, as a means of storytelling, for both the educator to provide context and for student-generated media to provide a window upon or reflection of individual practice, helps to explain why in the MOOC environment, video is so dominant.

The narrative, as Gold (1997) explained, supports meaning-making, or enables through multimedia the “meaningful” learning that Mayer (2001, p.17) described as formed of both retention and transference of new ideas. For MOOCs that span many different contexts and learners from many different backgrounds with different motivations, it comes down to how storytelling enables our learning and allows us to form our own stories we can learn from and share with others.


Bollinger, D.U., Supanakorn, S. and Boggs, C. (2010). ‘Impact of podcasting on student motivation in the online environment’, Computers & Education, 55, 714-722.

Caspi, A., Gorskey, P. and Privman, M. (2005). ‘Viewing comprehension: students’ learning preferences and strategies when studying from video’, Instructional Science, 33, 31-47.

Dey, E.L., Burn, H.E.and Gerdes, D. (2009). ‘Bringing the classroom to the web: effects of using new technologies to capture and delivery lectures’, Research in Higher Education, 50, 377-393.

FutureLearn (N.D.). ‘Why it works’, Using FutureLearn. Available at (last accessed 18 April 2017).

Gold, J. (1997). ‘Learning and story-telling: the next stage in the journey’, Journal of Workplace Learning, 9(4), 133-141.

Mayer, R.E. (2001). Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Moreno, R. (2007). ‘Optimising learning from animations by minimising cognitive load: cognitive and affective consequences of signalling and segmentation methods’, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 765-781.

Pritchard, D. (2010). ‘Where learning starts? A framework for thinking about lectures in university mathematics’, International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 41(5), 609-623.

Robin, B.R. (2008). ‘Digital storytelling: a powerful technology tool for the 21st century classroom’, Theory Into Practice, 47, 220-228.





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