The use of Teaching Films in blended and distance learning: Is good engagement good learning? By Tom Harrison

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Birmingham Digital, I think, is rightly a major theme of this round of the Big Conversation.  In a previous piece I outlined a healthy scepticism about the use of technology in Higher Education.  In this post, I consider a particular digital issue – the use of ‘teaching films’ in distance- and blended-learning programmes.

We hear a lot about the use of films in Higher Education teaching and learning these days.  Perhaps most notably the University wide push to expand the use of Panopto and the expectation that all lectures will be captured (at least voice and slides) on film and posted on Canvas for students to scrutinise – hopefully for the second time! I can see both the benefits and potential pitfalls of this move and I am pleased the roll out has taken student expectations into account. The University is also, as you would expect, moving with the times.

My concern is less with the use of Panopto in campus-based courses; as the potential benefits appear to outweigh the inconveniences (as long as students are still attending and engaging in the lectures).   My concern is more about the use of ‘teaching films’ in blended- and distance-learning courses – such as the one I run.  My course, and many others like it (including MOOCs), rely heavily on their use.  At the University of Birmingham, ‘teaching films’ come in various forms, including: films that are scripted and use an autocue; filmed conversations; impromptu pieces to camera; Pantopto recorded lectures; animations; talking heads; recorded seminars; interviews; on-location films; and others.  Given the widespread use of these films it is surprising how little research there is about their impact on learning.

There are several publications that provide practical support and advice for University teachers about the use of films in teaching (see, for example, Raths, 2013; Baker, 2016) and also research into what makes films compelling (see, for example, Hibbert, 2014). It is concerning that very little of this advice appears to be based on substantial empirical evidence; an argument also made by Hansch et al. (2015) and Thompson et al. (2014). What evidence there is tends to be about retention rates, which as noted by Hansch et al. (2015) starts by asking, ‘Did people watch this video?’ rather than, ‘Did people learn from this video?’.  In many educational environments engagement is seen as a good indicator of learning (for example, students active participation in seminars); however, I don’t believe good engagement necessarily equals good learning when it comes to teaching films. Also, what about the impact on learning the different types of films have? When should an academic use a scripted film and when might an impromptu piece to camera be more appropriate? Based on the lack of current research, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, this for me is a ‘known unknown’.

As Guo et al. (2014) found, high production value might not matter when it comes to student engagement, but perhaps a more important question is does high production matter when it comes to student learning?   Received wisdom is that teaching films are ‘liked’ by students and seen to improve their learning experience; a more important question is: what is their impact on learning and teaching?  If distance- and blended-learning are to expand at the University (for example through degree-apprenticeships and the Dubai campus), and student survey scores including NSS and PTES are to remain positive, than it is important, I believe, that we take steps to answer this question.


Baker, A. (2013) Active Learning with Interactive Videos: Creating Student-Guided Learning Materials’, T H E Journal, vol. 40, no. 11, pp. 12-18.

Guo, P. J., Kim, J., and Rubin, R. (2014) How video production affects student engagement: An empirical study of MOOC videos, [Online], In: Proceedings of the first ACM Conference on Learning@Scale Conference, Atlanta, GA, 04-05 March, Available at: [Accessed 30 October 2017].

Hansch, A., Newman, C., Hillers, L., Schildhauer, T., McConachie, K. and Schmidt, P. (2015) ‘Video and Online Learning: Critical Reflections and Findings from the Field’, HIIG Discussion Paper Series No. 2015-02, Berlin: Alexander von Humboldt Institut für Internet and Gesellschaft.

Hibbert, M. (2014) ‘What Makes an Online Instructional Video Compelling?’, EDUCAUSE Review, Available at: [Accessed: 20 January 2015].

Muller, D. A., Bewes, J., Sharma, M. D., and Reimann, P. (2008) ‘Saying the wrong thing: Improving learning with multimedia by including misconceptions’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 144-155.

2 thoughts on “The use of Teaching Films in blended and distance learning: Is good engagement good learning? By Tom Harrison”

  1. Hi Tom

    Some really interesting points and observations here and this is clearly an under-researched area. I think part of the question that you have hinted at towards the end is the purpose of the film.

    Is the film merely to relay information or is there a call to action for the student contained within it? I suppose that we need to look at video creation in the same way as we would look at a live lecture or seminar. In that, part of the purpose is to impart knowledge about the subject but other parts may encourage self-directed learning from the student. This may be individual work such as reading, or an assignment, or group or paired work such as discussion or project.

    In a sense, I am saying that perhaps we should not look at the video in isolation, but what are students being asked to do as a result of watching that material? How does it add to the learning? And as a result of the video have they been engaged – not only with the video but – with the subject matter?

    Another point that you touched on is the student feedback on these issues. One of remarks I hear often in my role is that students wish to watch more video. Whilst the enhancement of the content may not be that be improved greatly by simply providing videos, there is a balance to be struck between great content and engaging modes of delivery that is responsive to the survey.

    A huge benefit for videos is the visual representation of the subject matter, for reasons of accessibility for those who have a learning disability and may struggle with large amounts of text or those that don’t have English as a first language. These can equally been done through images and graphs. Part of the issue is that distance learning can be extremely text heavy when compared with campus-based courses. Additionally, it adds a personal element to the course.

    I probably have more questions than answers in my reply. Thanks for the article.

    Kind regards

  2. A large and growing proportion of my teaching (60%) is online. A useful medium for online teaching is video. More to the point, there is an expectation that we use video. The alternative, a text-based correspondence course is not viable these days. The evidence of effectiveness in T&L might be thin, but the markets we serve demand use of video and other multimedia devices in delivering modules. As a programme designer I have no choice but to use a lot of video.

    Video could be, for example in my subject area a tour of a factory floor, or service operation. Another kind of video is the screen-cast; at its most basic a voice-over of PowerPoint slides. Since about 2004 I have been making audio and video lectures for students. Back then I distributed these via iTunes or via MP3 / MP4 files for download. Feedback on the videos was very good; most of my students do not have English as a first language. Students valued the ability to press the pause button on the lecturer!

    For my online programmes, I have far less synchronous interaction time available compared to campus-based programmes. Interaction time is too precious for “chalk and talk”. Online students would rightly criticise such as being hardly any different than a video. I had already been shifting a lot of my standard lecture content into video because it freed up my campus-based classrooms for interactivity; role-plays, games or case-study exercises and I could explore these in more depth than was previously possible.

    Video analytics. More recently, I’ve been able to look at the analytics behind my videos. I had noticed that for the early lessons on my modules students were pressing the pause button quite a lot, and replaying videos. The later videos in a module saw less of this behaviour. I got students together in ‘focus groups’ and asked them what was happening. They said that in the early days, when getting to grips with new concepts, they found that they had to replay the video quite a lot; obvious really. However, later, with a good understanding of the basics they would just let the videos play. This research informed a re-design of my videos. Early videos in each module would be much more fragmented; ‘bite sized’ than later videos.

    This said, students commented that sometimes they would ‘switch off’ in a longer video because after all, it was the same voice saying things in pretty much the same way. I sensed that there was potentially a dangerous passivity in the audience which was less in evidence in live campus teaching. On campus, I can easily wander round and look at the class, asking questions to check engagement. Online I have less of this ability to check engagement, and I wanted to encourage my online students to move from a passive to active mode of watching and listening to my material.

    In early 2015, I found a web technology (now-defunct) that allowed me to build interactivity into videos. At one level this was simple pauses, with pop-up questions, but it could be more sophisticated, like asking students to participate in polls, to go off-line and research something, or even to type a long-form reply to a question which I would respond to later. The web application was called Zaption ( Zaption has since been acquired and is no longer under active development, but I have found a similar technology called PlayPosit ( with better functionality. Building videos in this way means that students have a far richer experience than is the case with simple passive viewing. Even with longer videos, there is always something to do, and this interaction – I think – assists with attention, learning and recall.

    However – and here is an important learning point for me – there is always a need for passive communication devices. As I created more interactive videos, online students complained about the workload; the fact that they had limited time and far too much video material to go through. In response, where appropriate I stripped out the video completely and just went back to publishing audio podcasts for topics more amenable to audio. I could strip out about a third of my interactive video content so that it could be delivered in via audio. A lesson here being first that one needs a balance of media / content; too much of any medium is problematic. The second more general learning is about the unintended consequences of any change! Fix one problem, and a new problem appears down the line.

    One of the big problems we have these days, with increasingly large classes, is that we do not have time for the live, end of course group-presentation session. This would typically be where syndicate groups of students would present in front of their PowerPoint presentation their analysis of a business issue. Also, we are increasingly being asked to deliver content over fewer sessions. Twenty years ago, most MBA subject modules would be taught over ten weeks or ten lessons. At Birmingham that number is now down to eight, with the online modules being compressed further into seven weeks. Contact time is limited for the tutor, but also for the students obviously. Accordingly, I got students to make their own videos for their end of module presentations. These could be viewed off-line by me and the second marker.

    Another way in which I get students to make their own videos is to have them produce revision screen-casts for each other. What I might do is list, say thirty key concepts from my module, and then get syndicate groups of three or four students to choose one of these. The brief is to have the students make an explanatory video for their colleagues. This would then be marked by me and would contribute to the student’s overall marks for the module. However, critically the outputs from this exercise could be used to support students’ revision for the final exam. For example, in my Service Operations Management class I previously used the applied essay instrument for assessment. However these days there is too much paganism and purchasing of essays; almost impossible to detect. Or rather one’s professional experience can detect a purchased essay, but the evidential burden required by plagiarism panels means that is very difficult to take these cases to prosecution. Anyway, I digress. In response, I am switching to an examination for the main assessment for this module. The students will be briefed to create a revision screen-cast for the exam. This will be in the form of a 10 minute video which explains their selected theoretical concept. I will also publish the marks given to each video so that students have an idea which videos they can safely use, and which they cannot!

    So, as you can probably gather, I’m a fan of videos. However, I don’t think the simple, passive video is universally appropriate for online, or campus-based teaching. I think it is handy to move the student from he passive to the active, hence the PlayPosits. Audio will often do the job, and is especially useful for time-poor part time students (which is the case for my 160 or so online students). Finally, getting students to make their own videos seems to work like a charm.

    Best wishes,

    Michael Shulver
    Procurement and Operations Management Department
    Birmingham Business School

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