“Online teaching. How hard can it be?”

So academics have found themselves at home, trying to create learning materials that stand out as good quality in a virtual world. If you were thinking the simplest path was just to record your lecture, you’re in for a rude awakening. It’s a maze of pitfalls and you will lose this game. Here’s eleven things you need to consider first.

Sure, recording video is democratised; anyone with a smart phone can produce something. But especially in a time when everyone is turning to virtual pedagogy, you need to consider the quality of what you are producing. Let me explain.

When students sit in a lecture theatre, believe it or not, they likely want to be there. They don’t usually leave in the middle of your engrossing session to make a cuppa, feed the dog, or watch ‘Homes Under The Hammer’. But at home they can, and they will. The social pressure to remain sitting and engaged is stronger in the environment of the lecture theatre than in their bedroom. They have invested more effort to be physically in the room with you, than they have to reach beside the bed to login to you while still in their PJs. You need to be much more engaging. How can you do this?

My first rule for this is that you absolutely should NOT deliver your session exactly like you would in a lecture theatre. Firstly, you will likely discover that your lectures are delivered much quicker to camera than in real life. This is good news, as you can do so much more with that freed up time, to make it engaging.

Activity No. 1. Firstly, ensure that you’ve cut the right bits. Making every word count is important to keeping your lecture to a manageable length without compromising the detail of the content. Use this additional time to add colour by doing the following.

PRE-PRODUCTION: Don’t touch that camera yet.

We all know how many pieces of fruit and veg we need to eat per day. But if we are honest, do we really abide by that advice? I trained as a biomedical scientist, and understand the role a balanced diet plays in longevity, yet my eyes light up at the promise of crisps and a large Sauvignon Blanc. Recognise that facts don’t move us to action. However, the emotions of a situation do, even if fleetingly. You need to blend both knowledge and emotion to ensure your material reaches the audience.

Activity No. 2. Prepare your session as an outline that flows from a hook of an introduction, via the varied landscape of your topic, to a destination that looks back in reflection over the journey you’ve taken and drives further reading by inspiring more questions than it answers.

If that sounds like storytelling, that’s because it is! As babies we learn complex languages through simple storytelling. We learn bizarre moral codes of behaviour through sacred texts, or fables and fairytales. Why not use the same power that stories possess to enhance our possibility of being engaging, just because we’re ‘all grown up now, and everything’.

Think about how you use stories to bring your topic to life; making it personal to you and your audience. Help people to see WHY they should care about your topic before you unpack it. Make them WANT to listen to you. It should have all those features mentioned in activity two, but ensure that your subject journey contains a series of hooks that keep people entranced, rather than just one to open the topic. Keep those hooks and twists coming until the end.

One way to do this is to consider the importance of cause and effect. Don’t deliver material that is a case of ‘this happens, then this happens, then… blah blah blah’. One revelation should pose a question that your audience want answered, which results in a consequence for the sub-topic under consideration, which further leads to the next development, and so on.

Activity No. 3. Look again at your outline and reorder it to ensure that sudden jumps don’t occur. There should be a logical development of your material that results from cause and effect.

Initially, that may look like a difficult thing to do. You will likely find the need to add material to do this, some of which you feel is outside of your discipline. Well, no time like the present. If you’re teaching engineering, then you need to be a little bit of a historian. Science is a historical record of progress and its story is fascinating. Think about the characters, even colleagues that are very much alive, that led to the discovery of a particular aspect of your topic. If you reference somebody’s research, introduce THEM and how their personality/situation led to this discovery, maybe the cultural environment in which that discovery was found, or the alternative theories that prevailed at the time. Make it personal; make it an interesting story.

REHEARSALS: A slice of humble pie

Secondly, without your presence (which we sadly miss), you need to be more dynamic than normal. Take a look at how we’re able to sit through an hour long episode of Horizon (or even Lucy Worsley for that matter), without feeling they don’t care about the topic. Not only is the story honed to the crucial elements, but their delivery is intense. To maintain that persona takes a lot of effort on their behalf and your session should also be viewed as a performance. Ok, you’re not Michael Gambon or Judi Dench, but you can do better than just talk. Let your topic shine by delivering it with the passion it deserves.

Activity No. 4. When you play back a sample of what you’re planning to record, be honest with yourself and decide whether somebody really wants to listen to another 45 minutes of that. If not, turn up your dynamism.

Remember, this is not about you. It’s your audience that hold the viewpoint, and they will assess you. While it is unfair to compare teachers, sadly, that’s how they will rate you. If your sessions aren’t as interesting as those by Dr. [Insert Name], that’s how they will rate you in module feedback. You can only damage your reputation as a great teacher by ‘dialling in a half-baked, pile of crap’ because your ego got in the way of improving your presentation. Be humble, admit your presentation style isn’t dynamic, possibly even lacklustre, and look at improving that.

To help with that, your trick is to appear to be speaking in an extemporaneous manner, as though you are ‘winging it’, yet delivering your key messages and stories with laser-like focus. To do this requires you to plan exactly what you will cover and to cut the waffle that has snuck into your previous versions of this session. Plan what you are going to say but don’t script it word-for-word. If you read it from a script, it will look and sound insincere and any emotional cues you have embedded will be lost. You will also appear to lack the authority in the subject you’re talking about. If you are struggling with this step, go back to activity two and add more notes to the headings you have laid out as the route for your journey through this topic.

If you must insist on a very obvious reminder of the order of your journey, don’t forget you can easily refer to your notes as you film yourself. It may also coincide with a poignant moment to share a visual cue to explain what you are talking about. Yes, the fallback on using PowerPoint slides as an aide-mémoire can also act as a cutaway in your video.

Activity No. 5. Play PowerPoint Taboo; you know that game where you aren’t allowed to use any of a list of words to describe an object. For instance, to describe an airplane to your team mates, you can’t use words like ‘wings’, ‘flying’, ‘transatlantic’, or ‘stewardess’. Basically, if your PowerPoint slide contains a certain word, you aren’t allowed to say that word while that slide is on screen. Ahh, that changes things. Consider whether there are better ways of demonstrating the thing you are talking about rather than using words. Think in a visual way, rather than a verbal way. Try using a picture that stimulates thinking rather than a list of bullet points that spell it out.

Thanks goodness for slides, eh? Sure, you can always narrate over set of your PowerPoint slides, but again, much of the emotional immediacy is lost and engagement will drop. It’s better that we see you personally. Otherwise, students can probably find an audible version of Stryer’s Biochemistry read by Samuel L. Jackson for much less than £9k per year. (I SOOOO want this to be real.)

PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY: ‘It’s time to play the music…’

‘It’s time to light the lights. It’s time to raise the curtain on the Muppet Show tonight.’ Get your camera set up, set your lights and get filming. Yes, this is the fun bit. Yet, it can be the undoing of all your good work. One of the most important things to learn about filmmaking is that it isn’t all about the things we see, but equally, the things we hear.

Over the recent weeks we have taken part in countless live link-ups via many virtual meeting platforms. Those examples often reflect the issues inherent with us underestimating the bandwidth we need from our broadband provider. Me included! One week into COVID19 lockdown and I’ve already swapped provider to something four times faster and £12 cheaper a month. However, when online video-links are weak, you will always see the same protocol in operation. Here are two scenarios you will have seen on the evening news:

  1. “The video is bad but we can still hear you.” – The host will remain with the interviewee for as long as they can be heard and understood.
  2. “Your picture is perfect, but we’ve lost sound there.” – Conversation is over! The host will pull your moment in the limelight within five seconds and move on to another story.

What is heard is way more important than your slick animation, corporate logos and lovely suit. Get a good quality microphone. Even with many electronic goods shops being closed, you can still get a great mic via mail-order companies. I’ve heard only great things about the Blue Yeti mics so google them. Yes, these USB plug-and-play mics seem expensive but there is a reason why they are currently out of stock with Amazon. See whether you can pick one up second hand. The gaming community is a good place to start looking. If you don’t want the mic in shot, consider using a shotgun mic, which will sit next to your camera and pick up only the sounds directly in front of it, even if that it six feet away. Please promise me, you’ll get a good mic, yeah?

Activity No. 6. Practice with your microphone. Adjust the settings so that it’s loud enough and there is a big difference between signal and noise. Also make sure your microphone is properly adjusted so that it doesn’t ‘pop’ when you pronounce percussive sounds (it’s too close), or sound like you’re recording in the shower (it’s too far away).

An easy way to check this is to record yourself and then listen to it played back. It feels very strange to begin with, but you will only pick up on these issues once you have listened to yourself. Try to speak at your normal volume and don’t put on a ‘telephone voice’ like my mother used to. The most natural way of speaking on camera is to talk as though you are chatting to your friends, down the pub. Funnily enough, that’s where I guarantee you’re quite dynamic as a speaker. (Caveat: Never drink and present.)

Lighting? We want to be able to see your face. It’s frustrating to record your whole film then find it keeps fading from bright-white to pitch-black because you left your camera in automatic mode and a cloud moved over the sun. You want the lights in your eyes and on your face. That’s where they’re supposed to be. Yes, they blind you; they’re supposed to. It’s so we can see you clearly.

Consider using a neutral backdrop to your ‘set’. Anything too distracting will divert attention away from you and you don’t want that to happen. Clever use of lighting can ensure you are the prime focus of your audience’s attention.

Activity No. 7. Look at the video of yourself on a decent size screen. You want people to focus on you so make sure YOU are what the focus and exposure is set for. To do this on an iPhone, tap and hold the screen on the bit you want to fix on. You will see it lock AE/AF to that setting. To lighten and darken, you can move the slider to compensate. DSLR cameras are more difficult but help is on the way, I promise. (See below)

While on the subject of framing, do we really need to see your trousers? No, so move closer the camera. If you are planning on doing some picture in picture things in post-production then remember to position yourself so you’re sitting to one side of the centre line. That way, you can alway look towards where your video will be played.

Martin stands to one side of shot to make way for a picture-in-picture image to be superimposed to his left.
Follow the rule of thirds, especially if you want to present other content alongside yourself.

It may be that you’ve also fallen into the trap of filming in portrait rather than landscape. If so, turn your phone/tablet so you appear to fill the screen of a computer monitor, not a smartphone.

After the orientation, a final thing to check it the resolution and aspect ratio of your recording. It maybe that you have little control over this, yet even a good webcam will offer you the option to capture HD images in 1080p. Ask yourself how your audience will be able to receive such high definition images. Is it necessary? Will they have crappy broadband like I had? If so, all your hard work is for nothing, as you will likely appear at about two frames per second and the hard work you put into the subtlety of your delivery will be lost. Consider lowering the resolution to 720p as a maximum. You probably don’t need to be recording at 60 frames per second (fps), when 25 is more than enough for decent quality video. I mean, cinema has always been shown at 24 fps and that was good enough for Stanley Kubrick. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!

Activity No. 8. Once you have set your camera to the best settings, have got your lights in place, have your outline secured, the key links in your head, the set is dressed and your mic is live, you are ready to record. Go on, enjoy it. You’ve earned it.

If you make a mistake, don’t stop, just pause for a second, then repeat the line to get it right this time. You can always edit it out afterwards if you’re pre-recording. If you’ve gone live, then that’s only what would have happened in the live lecture. How would you have handled it then? Would you have worried about it and panicked? Of course not. Consciously carry out an assessment. Was the mistake really that crucial?

POST PRODUCTION: Hours of fun in the dark

Up to now, everything that I’ve said assumes that you are either going to go live via YouTube, Facebook, Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom, etc, OR you are going to record it offline and then publish it later. The steps are the same for both routes. But filmmaking with a view to editing it later can bring it’s own little pot of technical challenges.

If you’ve done everything right, your footage should be really nice and you can stitch it together quite quickly in iMovie or Windows Movie Maker (yes, you can still get that here) to create your wonderful story. Add in your cutaway images of slides, and feel free to delete those bits where you made a mistake and repeated the line to get it right.

Activity No. 9. Watch your magnificent epic… all the way through… to the end. Make notes on things you can change straight away in your editing software. Look and listen as though it’s the first time you’ve seen it. Then fix them!

Also make notes of the things you can’t fix ‘in post’; those things that you see and cringe at. Why didn’t I do that? What’s that object in the background? Why can I hear the television? Why does it still look dark? Why am I not looking at the camera, but focussing on how I look on the screen all the time? What will I do different next time? Yes! You too get to reflect on your work and do better next time. You’re an academic, you preach that, practice it! And take heart, even Francis Ford Coppola had a good few swings at Apocalypse Now before he was almost happy with it.

DISTRIBUTION: Put it where the sun shines!

Before you publish it to a file, think again about your audience. How are they likely to view it? If you export it as a file from iMovie, it will likely set the bit rate really high and the resulting file size will be massive. Your students won’t be able to download it at a streamable rate. Change the ‘output quality’ setting to ‘custom’ and shift the slider left to the minimum quality that iMovie will allow for your resolution. For 720p, that’s probably about 3.33Mbps. It’s still quite high for what is needed so save that before moving to the last stage.

Activity No. 10. Run your resulting video file through a programme called Handbrake. This powerful little video conversion tool will take a big file and allow you to lower the bitrate even further without compromising the video quality too much. If needed, you can even resize the video to make the resolution smaller.

Always remember how long it takes to get videos online and into content management systems. Virtual learning environments like those mentioned earlier will be set up by IT professionals who don’t want you to fill up their servers with 4GB images of DVDs, and who will have set a maximum file size you can upload. Sometimes there may be an upper limit to the amount of total storage they will allow in a module or course. Allow extra time to negotiate with them over the necessity of your fourteen-hour opus in HD. Also remember that everyone is doing the same as you.

If you are new to uploading to YouTube they may not let you post videos of longer than fifteen minutes when you first join them. That is a right you have to earn so get some material up there ahead of you needing to post a full lecture. YouTube has some lovely features such as the ability to provide closed captions (AKA subtitles) and also keep your videos unlisted. This latter feature is really useful for you being able to distribute links only to those people you want to see it. Remember that it isn’t invisible and anyone who has the link can watch your performance. It’s a public platform. Finally, don’t try to monetise your videos on YouTube to make a bit of cash on the side. I remember one university who monetised their main channel and the adverts that appeared during their video were for another local university. ‘Egg firmly on the face’ of the marketing department there.

Activity No. 11. Unfortunately, your fantastic performance and twisting narrative aren’t accessible to all. Screen readers can’t understand what your face is doing, and if your audience are blind how can they read your subtle facial expressions? Irregardless of the clarity of your microphone, automated subtitles aren’t perfect, so if viewers are deaf, can they read your words accurately? Take your video and now write a transcript that can be read by screen readers and will allow others to follow along. Post it alongside your video, clearly labeled as the transcript. This is not a request, it’s a requirement. You will find much more guidance on this here: https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/2734799?hl=en-GB

Right, we’re at the end. This post was the result of a conversation with a few friends over the last week about how we engage with the public online. I have always loved virtual pedagogy and some outputs in this regard are listed below.

Away from the theory and back to pragmatism, I have curated a collection of further notes scraped from the belly of the internet and beyond that you will find useful. This ‘Basics of Filmmaking’ document was prepared for students at the University of Chester Medical School, undertaking science communication assignments. It touches on how to craft stories as well as more technical aspects of capturing them on film. Click on the image to to the right to download it.

A link to download the 'Basics of Filmmaking' document.

Online teaching? How hard can it be? I’ll let you decide when you’ve had a go. Just don’t give up too quickly.

Reddy, Peter, Butler, Michael JR, Senior, Carl and Wood, Jon (2013). Virtual pedagogy initiative revisited. IN: Good practice guide in learning and teaching. Green, Julie and Higson, Helen (eds) Good practice guide in learning and teaching . Aston University. Available: http://publications.aston.ac.uk/id/eprint/39909/

Senior, Carl, Butler, Michael J.R., Wood, J. and Reddy, Peter A. (2009). The virtual pedagogy initiative. IN: Good practice guide in learning and teaching. Green, Julie and Higson, Helen (eds) Good practice guide in learning and teaching . Birmingham (UK): Aston University. Available: http://publications.aston.ac.uk/id/eprint/2428/

Vanessa Parson, Peter Reddy, Jon Wood & Carl Senior (2009) Educating an iPod generation: undergraduate attitudes, experiences and understanding of vodcast and podcast use, Learning, Media and Technology, 34:3, 215-228, DOI: 10.1080/17439880903141497