The Media, The Instructor, The Instruction


As a panelist at the edX Global Forum in November 2014, I was asked to share a short clip from one of BU’s MOOCs to demonstrate the use of media in learner engagement.  Given the number of great clips to choose from, I combined them into a short reel of all of our MOOCs to both showcase the work of different production teams at BU and to discuss the importance of a student’s sense of place within a course. The video you see above is the one presented that day.

In a face-to-face course, a sense of place is easily established by chairs and desks and their direction, facing each other or a podium, whiteboard or screen. In an online course, a sense of place depends heavily on course design and organization, including that of the media, to visually locate students and represent their place in the learning journey.

To create that sense of place, three key elements come to play: the media, the instructor and the instruction. In the video above, the media sections runs from 00:00 to 00:14, the instructor section from 00:14 to 00:36 and the instruction section from 00:36 to 00:58.

The MEDIA, in this case stacking banners and title cards, act as cues or signposts, similar to ones that you would rely on while you drive through a city you’ve never been to before. A banner appears on top of every page, and is unique to a each module. A module in this educational context refers to a self-contained unit broken down from the overall course topic into a smaller digestible piece for the learner. Each banner includes the name of the course, the name of the module and a visual representation of that module’s topic. For example, in module 6 of Alien Words, the Radial Velocity method for discovering exoplanets was discussed. This concept can be visually represented by an object orbiting a star. This image was placed in the banner as well as all the video title cards, so a student could quickly scan the page and know the topic being discussed.

The INSTRUCTOR, in addition to being a subject matter expert, is a student’s guide. This is someone providing directions along the journey. The instructor has been on this road before and knows the way. They are experts in their field and passionate about the subject. Although students and an instructor do not meet in person, learning can often feel more intimate in an online course than in a face-to-face classroom due to the one-on-one feel.  In the course War for the Greater Middle East, for example, Professor Andrew Bacevich talks directly into the camera, telling a story. Similarly, in the course Sabermetrics 101 tablet capture is used to point out specific details for a more analytical interpretation of sports data. It’s as if the instructor is writing directions or left and right arrows on a map for the learner to follow along their journey.

Finally, the INSTRUCTION or presentation of material can take many diverse forms, and is similar to step-by-step directions of how to get from point A to point B. It is no surprise that this section is the longest portion of this video. The instruction is the meat of the course structure and makes a difference in how the material is presented. The instruction can also be viewed as the style of the course. In course The Art of Poetry, the art itself takes center stage. Poetry is an art, so the chosen instructional style is cinematic, which in of itself an art form. The look and feel of all the videos parallel the content.  In contrast, a mathematics course on Differential Equations uses a very simple visual style to distribute instructional content. There is lots of whitespace in each video. One could consider this empty space as a canvas on which the road map will be constructed, like annotating an equation. Every word, every slide and every pen mark is thought-out in order to make a complex topic more understandable for the student.

There you have it. A technique using the media, the instructor and the instruction in a course to help learner engagement. I’ve chosen to focus on these three elements to help students find a sense of place. When this technique comes together for a course it can help guide as well as locate the students through their learning journey. Are there any other examples out there? It would be great to see those too.

Tim Brenner is the Media Production Manager at Boston University’s Digital Learning Initiative.

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