The Case Against Video-Based Instruction

Before I start receiving hate mail from my colleagues, I want to go on the record to say I’m not an anti-video evangelist. In fact I frequently use screen recordings and other video content in my own training design and development.

These days, videos are cheaper and easier to make than ever before. But my stance is this: just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

On a recent client project, I was presented with a plan for a beginner-level course that consisted of nothing but 40 talking head videos.

Of course, the issue was two-fold. Obviously the client was trying to cram way too much learning into this course. But that was a touchy subject so my practical mind went to numbers. 40 VIDEOS! Even if they went with snippet-length content like I had recommended, we were looking at 2 to 3 hours of videos.

Luckily, the project manager was a friend – and also mother to a 3-year old – so I appealed to her logic. I asked, “You want Sophie to learn her ABCs, right? Are you just plopping her in front of Sesame Street for a few hours a day? Or are you also including other things, like books, songs and activities?” Thank goodness, that comparison paid off.

I contend that effective adult learning isn’t all that different from effective childhood learning. We have the same short attention spans. We need varied and rich content to keep us engaged. We need activities to help process and emphasize what we’re learning.

Few of us want to learn by reading a 1,000-page textbook. But we also have the propensity for multitasking when we’re online. I know I’m guilty of saying, “I’ll just peek at my email while I watch this video on my other monitor.” 10 minutes later, I’ve pretty much missed what happened in the video.

What I’m saying is that most training should have multiple components to be really effective. We must pair engaging video (if your Powerpoint put me to sleep in person, it isn’t any better as a screen recording!), on-screen interactivity (clicking ‘Next’ doesn’t count), short reading assignments, and off-line activities to really get people learning.

Stephanie Dyke

About Stephanie Dyke

Stephanie is an artist and writer who stumbled into training and instructional design by way of a random 10-year stint in Human Resources. She has designed and developed training content for numerous industries including: direct selling, retail, mortgage and finance, health and fitness, software, hospitality and maritime. She has a postgraduate certificate in Distance Education from UMBC and is currently a freelance ID, creating synchronous and asynchronous training that she hopes is improving the superhuman abilities of learners everywhere.


  • Totally agree. Different stimulus promotes better learning despite the learning environment you are using. In fact that is why good and professional instructional design is needed in order to create effective and engaging courses.

  • I hate having to sit and watch a video waiting for important points to be presented when glancing over a list of points is so much quicker. Yes videos can help with engagement, focus and even emotionality, but only if they contain purposeful use of the right mix of visual and audio resources… and if they don’t lengthen out the activity to longer than it should be. How about presenting the video AND the list side-by-side. Even better, provide bookmarks where the viewer can jump to for each item on the list.
    If I want to be entertained I’ll watch the video. If I just want to find stuff out I’ll read the notes then watch the video if I have to see it demonstrated.

    • For most things … Certainly media making and any kind… Is a script is must before you press record!!!

      WE .. In mediamerica are drugged with the highest of the high quality production values. We sit in front of any screen and expect this. As for training media…. Most are lazy and just setup a camera and shoot a lecture.

      That said if we apply the Advertising benchmark of the 30 sec commercial to training… Apply a TOC to the performance ojectives, direct the learner to LABs – real and vitural – then test out in a workplace proctored environment. Then those original videos get live on as job aids.

      Public career technical education does have the development budget to do this and Industry does not want to take the time. The workforce development model in the USA is nothing to envy.

      CBT in any form is still concept based learning & giving metrics for quality output. Still there’s nothing more valuable than the coaching that comes from being an apprentice with a master.

      The charm of instuctor & student is best.

      But to install a dishwasher, I’ll Goto youtube and look for a video with good audio, closeups, GFX & TXT.

      I have seen no comments about the Finkleman videos explaining computer interfaces are not making us smarter…rather we are de-evolving. We are DEVO. As folks working in ISD are we driving the bus? I say we are texting while we are driving.

      Simple question……Of the three Finkleman videos who has watched just one?

    • Stephanie Dyke

      Thanks for your comments, Jeremy. Your position is one I hear from many learners and one I often share, myself. I can read faster than most speakers talk and if there is nothing revolutionary (eg. a demonstration, necessary visual cue, etc.) in a video, I’d much rather just skim the talking points.

      You’ve brought up something that I touched on before – knowing your audience is a really important component of successfully delivering content. Some people digest information best by listening, some by reading, others by watching. But people overwhelmingly learn best when they have to perform an action in conjunction with what they’ve learned. Unfortunately, some training isn’t suited to practice or activities so we go with whatever is most engaging and most likely to result in recall of the information.


    I found VIDEOs. In three parts. All less then 15 minute. And they are all talking head videos with powerpoint.

    So as a baseline maybe the worst FORM…. but the content will knock you on your ass.

    Because maybe in the name of efficiency, budget. & recording of data we are just doing it all wrong.

    Can we no longer watch, listen and learn?

    That is the be or not to be ISD question !!

    • Stephanie Dyke

      Hi Joel, I think I referenced your comments over on the LinkedIn thread but wanted to respond here too. I did watch the first Finkleman video. It is definitely interesting stuff. And, while I’m no neuroscientist, I’m fairly convinced that our attention spans, expectations, etc. have been irrevocably altered by our access to digital media in the modern age.

      However, the truth of the matter is, our attention spans and expectations have been irrevocably altered!! I found the Finkleman video a bit painful to be honest. If I was a member of the audience during the live presentation, I would probably have been far more interested, taking notes, etc. But watching at my desk and adding in my own environmental distractions and the fact that the occasionally-shown PPT slide was out of focus made it a challenge.

      As I said over on the LinkedIn thread, when we are strongly motivated by our interest in a topic, we will likely endure anything in the pursuit of knowledge. But the unfortunate reality is that many, MANY of our learners are not particularly motivated to learn about the topics we are charged with putting in front of them. By virtue of our distracted, time-challenged, entertainment-obsessed society, we sometimes have to meet them half-way.

      You can’t force a person to watch, take notes and learn from a talking head video if they aren’t motivated to do so. However, you can construct stories, case studies and interactive elements around a topic to induce engagement. That’s really all my argument is about!

      Thanks for contributing to this discussion! You have given me lots to think about!

      • All true the resolution of the video to be uploaded in 2004 is a whole differ technology than now. This way before H.264 capture and encoding. This was likely recorded in Hi 8 at half rez NTSC – a major change in form in just 11 year.

  • I see what you are driving at, Stephanie, but be ever cautious of the broad brush…

    Not to go all academic on you, but I felt a wrinkle cross my brow when I read “I contend that effective adult learning isn’t all that different from effective childhood learning….” While there is some debate as to the validity of the claimed differences between Pedagogy and Andragogy, there does seem to be some agreement to the fact that adults have a much broader and varied storehouse of ‘cases/examples’ to draw on when attempting to accommodate a new piece of information into their understanding. The tremendous power of story works on both the young and the old, but the ability to quickly see analogies in those stories to speed learning is something that adults (or anyone with rich experience, regardless of age) have over stereotypical children.

    As to your point (and many of the comments) about video-based instruction, I feel like there is a sliding scale that your (purposely?) provocative title misses. I tend to agree with much of what you say in the body of the article, but worry that the title will mislead those who just glance at truncated Google results and don’t bother with the more nuanced points you make.

    Video *is* just a tool – and like any tool, it can be used for good or evil (a hammer can build a house for the homeless or whack someone in the head). Perhaps it’d be more accurate to have titled your piece “The Case Against Mono-Media Instruction”, since the points you raise in the body of your article could just as easily had “video” swapped with “text” or ‘graphics”. It doesn’t seem that it’s video that you are protesting (as you disavow in the first sentence of the article), but rather using video ALONE.

    Maybe I’m splitting hairs and raising an obvious point, but I’m currently making heavy use of ‘talking head’ videos in some Exec Education courses with premier Business School programs. The results have been fantastic in spite of this supposed ‘sin’ because the videos are brief (4-10 mins) and are just a part of a more broadly integrated whole that includes graphics, animations, text case-studies, and application-based exercises. The magic is in the mix.

    • Stephanie Dyke

      Thanks for your comments, Jon! I admittedly made some generalized statements in my post – of course there are many major differences between pedagogy and andragogy. And video isn’t *really* the enemy – poorly conceived instructional design is where the harm lies.

      The essence of my position is that there are so many elements to consider when creating course content. A thorough needs analysis being a very important first step. Knowing your audience can turn much of what I’ve said on its head. Your use of talking heads in exec education being a perfect example. If that’s the right format for presenting the content to your particular audience, then no harm, no foul.

      There is a thread going about this post over in the Instructional Designers group on LinkedIn. Someone shared a video there featuring Hans Rosling – it’s 4 minutes of Rosling presenting public data and statistics. But I sat mesmerized watching because of how the video was constructed. You can view it here:

      I think I’ve probably irritated a few of my colleagues with my post, but the discussion about it has given me a lot to think about!

  • Thank you for this discussion! I see so many talking-head videos that people call “courses” lately, and it makes me cringe every time I see one.

    You’re spot on with this one. As Christy said, if the video is story-based (and I’ll add interactive–allowing the learner to choose what happens to the characters and the outcome) it can be very effective.

    We do a lot of such interactive, game-based movies–with lots of branching and complex story lines–none are longer 5 minutes — to increase the engagement. After the video segments, viewers are then often taken to an “extreme challenge” where they must complete a task in a simulated environment using the information and experiences from the story/video. Training is not (or should not) be a one-off event; ongoing application and testing of the concepts learned is what increases effectiveness, as well as engagement.

    For some of the videos we use actors; for others we use fun 3D animated Pixar-like characters to make the stories fun, and to also trigger emotions.

    Granted, this is not “quick-and-dirty” design, but it’s far more effective than the talking heads with PowerPoint. That type of video is akin to watching TV; it’s not interactive. We just sit there are stare at the screen, without really engaging any problem-solving skills. Because those kinds of videos are not effective, we have turned down all requests for “guru-on-the-screen” video development the past two years.

    The guru or expert disseminating information on video is just no longer accepted by a lot of viewers. Learners are savvy, and they expect savvy training. As more and more companies start to use big data in their learning environments, I think learning managers and others will realize the real “costs” of low-cost talking-head videos. Once they see the high abandonment rates, the light bulbs will go off that they are not the most effective or efficient use of development resources.

    But you don’t have to spend a lot to get a high-quality effective video. Compelling writing (story-based writing) and a good writer who knows how to engage emotions and trigger internal motivators, can go a long way–even without fancy visuals.

    • Stephanie Dyke

      Thanks for your comments, Vicki – your description of the work you are doing sounds like a great step up from the talking heads and a really good companion to more interactive elements. There is a lot written about the virtues of storytelling in marketing and advertising. I feel like the ID world is just scratching the surface there and could learn a lot from those industries.

      And you are spot-on about the *real* cost of low-cost content! That’s usually the best argument when attempting to drive stakeholders away from bad/lazy solutions. Putting a little time, effort and resources into a solid deliverable can reap a higher ROI.

  • I agree! I recall watching training videos that were long and extremely boring. It is up to the ID to create engaging instruction. Video can be effective if used properly and is not always the best means of communicating the entire instruction.

    • In my experience in both corporate and academic (MBA) environments; multi-multi learning has become an effective way of engaging, training, and generating high levels of interest and more importantly content retention. Video, voice over, role play, case studies, assessments are all important parts of the learning process. Integrated they can provide great reinforcement and application learning for the adult learner.

      • Stephanie Dyke

        great points, jackson100z and Sandy. The key in all of this for me is the appropriate use of multi-media. Video is a tool and should serve great instructional design, not the other way around!

    • Yep, videos can be boring. But that isn’t an inherent feature. If it were, TV and youtube would be dead and nobody would go to a theater to watch a movie. Engagement is key whether video, ;learning games, books, “lecture”, or any other medium. We need to put learners first in design and in delivery.

      • Let me add that to be engaging does not necessarily mean Pixar quality. Lots of youtube how-to videos and most KhanAcademy videos are engaging. High-quality production is not the key to engagement.

      • There is the conversation about the aspect of engagement.

        The second conversation is an aspect of form as technology versus content which actually are the requires of the stuff for the engagement of the audience or learner.

        Why am I in front of the screen anyway and what am I supposed to get out of it and what am I supposed to do with what I get out of it?

        What I believe is lacking in any initiation of instructional design is applying concepts of lean.

        My exposure to lean was to add efficiencies to manufacturing – to minimize the aspects of creating scrap ( waste of time ) and enhance quality of the end product.

        The success of any instructional design is the idea of a push and pull and both the instructor and the learner has to be obligated at the right time in the right way to be responsible to their role.

        Are real question is not TV or not TV but what is lean instructional design?

  • What we’re seeing in a world where producing “results” quickly, iteratively,with as little planning as possible – in other words abandon all ye any concept of instructional design – get to the development – FAST – is that we’re losing site of what we’re trying to accomplish. Pandering to millennials – or what I’ll call the millennial malaise has similar results. What we’re seeing is a whole generation that only wants to use information, short term, at the task level (preferably) so they can do their jobs and get to the next step.

    Four hour videos are based on four hour sessions. Probably more or less an hour each. Does anyone see the folly in four hours of mostly monologue from a speaker ostensibly with slide after slide after slide? Is the video the problem or is it a symptom of bad training? I think the latter

    • Stephanie Dyke

      Good point, Kevin. I think the decision to carelessly use video or to poorly conceive of content is the real culprit. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to vilify Millenials (I’m raising one and he’s had some great suggestions for my content!), the entertainment value of viral videos has probably contributed to the idea that videos make a good solution for all kinds of needs.

      Rapid e-learning development provides lots of examples of the wonderful – and horrible – things that can come out of democratization of technology solutions.

  • I think the issue you have identified is actually (in)appropriate curating of content

    For a counterpoint on the subject of the of video, per se, have a look at:

    Point of View Technology for Technical & Vocational Education & Training (POV4TVET)

    This article will only be of interest for those who are responsible for designing or delivering training – or who must suffer through it as participants – or who are interested in the quality of their children’s learning experiences in school. All others are cautioned that reading this may prove to be a complete waste of their time, apart from the entertainment factor. Hot off the press in August, 2015, and — Shameless Self Promotion.



    • Stephanie Dyke

      Thanks for sharing the counter-point, Damian.It’s a good one. POV video definitely has significant merit in certain training situations such as technical and vocational training. If I need to figure out something technical, I always seek out the YouTubers who have videos showing step-by-step instruction. On the other hand, if the same information is presented by a person merely talking to the camera or speaking over a static PPT slide, with zero “show-and-tell,” I usually consider it an epic fail.

  • Videos can be great for increasing the emotional impact of a story, modeling nonverbal skills, or demonstrating complex procedures. I can’t stand talking head videos though, especially long ones. It’s OK for an instructor or SME introduction to add a personal touch or credibility. If it’s just a person talking though, I don’t need to watch them talk to learn.

    I had a prospective client who wanted 30 hours of video for a project. It wasn’t even video specifically recorded for online; they just wanted to record the face-to-face training. That’s not e-learning; it’s e-watching (and probably snoozing or checking email). I turned the job down when he wasn’t willing to consider anything else.

    • Stephanie Dyke

      Thanks for your comment, Christy! I totally agree, videos are awesome for showing something that is otherwise difficult to show efficiently or effectively. And the personal touch from the instructor or SME definitely can’t be discounted. But 30-hours of recorded classroom training – yikes! That sounds painful.

      I think clients and SMEs often think video automatically equals engagement. Plus they hold the cost of recording themselves via webcam (quick! free!) up against the longer and pricier design and development process for creating actual engaging content. I think training videos frequently fall into the fast-cheap-good triad… if it’s fast and cheap, it’s probably not good.

      • As somebody who is dyslexic & filmmaking as a career path, I grew into industrial filmmaking in Detroit the birthplace of training movies.

        This baby happens when Thomas Edison & Henry Ford get into a room. This & the Edison Trust that did block independent film making & began the movement of immigrants to California and the Hollywood motion picture moguls.

        Video by itself is never going to do what a total approach to developing training interventions to serve a multi intelligences learning audience.

        The computer, all media & interactive design allows the variety needed for a learner to choose thier best way to teaching & learning styles.

        I’m still waiting for the self assessment that would give the ideal for an interactive computer based learning environment.

        Still there is no muscle memory in a 2D screen or maybe even an immersive 3D VR environment.

        CBT in any form is still concept based learning & giving metrics for quality output. Still there’s nothing more valuable than the coaching that comes from being an apprentice with a master.

        The charm of instuctor & student is best.

        But to install a dishwasher, I’ll Goto youtube and look for a video with good audio, closeups, GFX & TXT.

        For right now…it works for me.

      • I’m still waiting for the self assessment that would give the ideal for an interactive computer based learning environment.

        There is still no regard for a fung shway of a 2D screen design let alone using what we know about left / right brain featuring of end users’ favor toward what may design enablers.

        In fact most if not all interface in someway are disabling filled with more distraction than usability. Hence the idea of custom interface rendering based on entry level multi intelligence pretesting. The the interface conforms to you.

        The was this guy Finkleman at a SALT conference in 2004 who believes computer interfaces re dumping us down.

        More recent is a book called The Shallows that makes a similar claim.

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