Can you learn from watching a video?

The definition of e-learning has always been vague but in my view one of the tests of proper e-learning is the inclusion of learning interactions.

But in the last year I have seen increasing use of video positioned as e-learning. Whole platforms like Videojug or Learnable rely on video as the sole vehicle for learning and a lot of m-learning is also adopting the ‘learn by watching a video’ approach. But can we really learn simply by watching a video?

A couple of years ago I delivered a seminar at Learning Technologies with the Sponge team where we looked at whether or not we could learn from watching a documentary on TV. We didn’t have a definitive answer – it was done more to provoke some thinking on how we use video and in particular documentary techniques when building e-learning programmes.

I guess that when we watch a documentary most of us will say that we have learned something new – but that learning is quite shallow. Watch a documentary tonight on ‘Global Warming’ and in the morning we will be able to reel off some interesting facts but one week later the forgetting curve has kicked in and we will struggle to be able to recall anything other than the fact that it was a ‘good documentary’. As for actually changing our behaviour – in other words applying the learning – well the chance of that is pretty minimal.

Of course true learning is best seen as a path or a cycle:

  • You are exposed to something new
  • You then interpret the new information
  • You then try out what you have learned
  • Finally you reflect on how it all went
Simple Learning Cycle

In Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle this roughly equates to the four phases of watching, thinking, doing, and feeling.

Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it. David Kolb

Watching a video may fulfil the first two stages but won’t help much with Stages 3 and 4. In many ways a lot of so-called learning actually only makes it to Stage 2 – but good learning online or offline completes all four stages.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the immediacy that video brings to e-learning programmes, but video alone will not deliver the full learning experience. It needs to be supported by a range of learning interactions preferably both online and offline.

Try it for yourself. Here are some examples of video used for learning. Which works best for you?


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  • Steve Flowers

    Great observations! For the most part, I agree with you. Video can be really helpful but it’s only part of the puzzle and it doesn’t have much punch in isolation. Used without a solid rationale, this is a treatment that can be abused and might completely disregard the real learning problems at hand.

    Here are the two applications where I think video can be most powerful:

    - SHORT bits of task support intended to help someone accomplish a task. The third and possibly the fourth phase of Kolb’s model are likely to be hit in this situation if the task is actually performed. Learning might be a side effect of this use, but it’s not the central point of mediation in this case.

    - SHORT bits of explanation intended to clarify a mental model or relationship. I think there can be deep learning in this case without much additional mechanism if the participant was already struggling to grasp a concept or model. The unbinding of understanding can be a powerful anchor. The “AHA” moment where you’re elated to finally “get it” is pretty sticky, in my opinion. As a designer, I probably wouldn’t leave it at this point, but I think this situation (struggle > clarity) is a powerful and lasting catalyst when the conditions are right.

    The Kahn Academy presents some really interesting resources. But I think we often get caught up in the new and shiny and fail to realize that information resources are only one part of the puzzle.

    In the blind use of video without rationale, we conflate information with outcome — assuming that once someone has seen it done, a positive difference will be realized. Can’t draw a line from information to value without considering the other stops. Information is rarely the missing ingredient that causes incoherence in knowledge or behavior formula.

    Information doesn’t equate to knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t equate to behavior change. Behavior change doesn’t always impact value.

    • johncurran

      Steve – Thanks for your comments. I agree that video is a powerful device for learning but it can’t do everything. As a learning designer I am seeing a big push to create videos that will ‘do it all’. One of the key drivers for this is mobile devices which are great video delivery devices and unlike Flash they work pretty much out of the box on all platforms.

  • Sandra Herrera

    Awsome article, thanks for share it, i think the video planificatión and design is the most important step

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