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Watch This: Visual Explanations and Your Online Course

Move over TED-Ed, you aren't the only ones in town offering brief multimedia presentations of educational concepts. Other platforms and providers are also creating collections of embeddable, linkable features that can augment an online lesson. These recorded mini-lectures are presented as audio narration with a visual component, which may include animation, screenshots, and screencasts, and are growing in popularity with both students and instructors. Here are three examples you may want to consider as you review your course materials for the upcoming term:

  • Explania: This site offers "hundreds of animated explanations, interactive tutorials and instructional videos." In addition to searching topics by keyword, you can also browse categories, or channels, such as technology and ecology, as well as Most Popular and Most Recent. The topics cover a wide range and include workplace training as well as educational materials. A nice example of an Explania animation is What is Twitter?  
  • Khan Academy: Perhaps one of the best known sources of online educational tutorials, this non profit boasts over 3000 videos covering primarily K-12 subject areas such as math, science, and humanities. Learners can search for and watch individual selections, or become more engaged in the platform earning digital learning badges, completing adaptive assessments to practice skills, working through test prep modules (e.g. SAT Math, GMAT), and tracking learning progress. View two examples – Bay of Pigs Invasion and Balancing Chemical Equations – that include audio narration and a variety of visual elements. Transcripts and subtitles are also available.
  • RSA Animate: This series of video presentations features topics ranging from economics and neuroscience to motivation and education all ranging from 10 to 12 minutes in duration. One title, Changing Education Paradigms has had over 7 million views. This is a great example of the approach used in this series, adding drawings on a whiteboard to illustrate a narrated lecture. RSA Animate is a project of The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

These examples are all of collections, but there are other options. An animated explanation of the Higgs Boson particle and the Large Hadron Collider, recently featured on, helps to describe the physics theories involved. 

Why are they so popular?

According to a Forbes article published last week, "Online video has become a valuable 21st century learning tool, in and out of the classroom. In the last year, views of educational videos on YouTube doubled." Much of this content is free to use and easy to link to or even embed on a web page or within a course site.

It's not just instructors that seek out this kind of presentation. A study of undergraduate students by researcher Glenda Morgan from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently found that "most students shop around for digital texts and videos beyond the boundaries of what professors assign them in class."  These supplemental resources are often found through university productions, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Open CourseWare and those found on sites like Academic Earth.

Like the TED Talks, online options include presentations created by subject matter experts, with professional animation and video producers, resulting in short features designed to hold the viewers attention. There is a certain amount of storytelling involved that if done well, can draw students into the lesson being presented and positively impact learning along the way.

Ideas for Use in Your Courses

All of these tools remind me a little bit of those days as a young student in a traditional classroom when the teacher announced a film or similar activity. My classmates and I eagerly anticipated this break from the norm, a new source of information that also had the potential to entertain and help us remember what we learned. Who can forget Schoolhouse Rock, for example, and the episode that explained how a bill becomes a law

How could you adopt visual explanation resources in your online course? In a course that is primarily text based, as many online courses are, these materials may be well-received by students as part of:

  • Course discussions: You might ask students to view a recording you've selected. Provide guiding questions to consider and incorporate in an asynchronous or synchronous conversation related to the course learning objectives.
  • "Live" demonstrations: Leading students through a demonstration, like those that often take place in science courses, can be problematic in an online environment. You may find existing videos that will expand your explanations of difficult concepts and assigned readings.
  • Remediation and review: With the range of topics and levels of education represented, your students may appreciate access to these online platforms to review materials that help to explain complex ideas presented in your course. These materials can also provide help for those who need more background information and practice.

One of the challenges of using these existing products is finding components relevant for your lessons and in the context of your course and students. You may be interested in creating your own multimedia presentations, and there are multiple tools available to help you with this. As you review the options, keep costs and compatibility with your school's learning management system in mind. A recent post from educator Justin Marquis at outlines some of the steps required for creating videos similar to those from Kahn Academy.

Consider enlisting the help of instructional designers and media specialists at your school. You might be surprised to find teams available to help you with these kinds of projects through faculty support offices and centers for teaching and learning.

Are you using recorded explanations in your online course? Tell us about your experiences with openly available presentations as well as with developing your own.

Image credit: Loopsta, Flickr, CC-BY

May 2nd, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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