How Much Hollywood Glitter Should Colleges Use in Their Online Courses?

Strayer Education CEO Karl McDonnell admits that some of Strayer University’s online courses were boring and monotonous, essentially narration on slides containing clip art. The for-profit association is therefore expanding its efforts to apply Hollywood storytelling techniques to its course materials.

The move is part of a trend – led by for-profit providers but also led by some mainstream colleges – to make course material shine, sometimes bringing in celebrity guests. This new approach juxtaposes video models created by most teachers today, adding a production team, producers, lights and angles to teaching video.

At Strayer, managers established Strayer Studios in 2015, an in-house production facility with the goal of making what he calls “frenzy-worthy” educational material. McDonnell says the studio has since created or updated about 10 courses with help from the studio, which employs a mix of filmmakers, producers, editors and cinematographers who work with instructional designers and faculty.

For a writing class, Strayer Studios produced a series of videos featuring Kim Coles, an actress and comedian best known for her role in the TV series Living Single. Some footage is shot in a comedy club where she sometimes performs, and she shares her experience as a writer and her advice on autobiographical writing.

When they invited her to the class, Coles was already teaching an online course on her own, using the Teachable platform, which allows anyone to offer classes. “It has to do with not waiting for a new sitcom,” she says of why she got into teaching. “It’s something I do when I’m sitting there waiting for another audition.”

Coles heard that some students only knew her through her acting and expressed surprise that she wrote. “They’re so excited that I’m here to teach, and then they can think, ‘Oh, she’s got more to give than just being a celebrity,'” she said.

Coles is not the regular teacher for the course – many different Strayer instructors walk students through the material. “I come to teach elements,” says Coles.

And she emphasizes that she is there to share her ideas, not just to empower the stars. “I hope we don’t see a tendency to just use a name to sell content,” she says. “What a tragedy it would be to have a pretty face and a pretty name to teach just content that they’re not connected to.” She praises the college approach as being “classic” and says the images were so beautiful she could add them to her “sizzling reel”.

Preserving the authenticity

McDonnell compared Strayer Studios’ approach to creating mini-documentaries that illustrate the concepts of the courses. “We would never have a celebrity for the sake of having a celebrity,” he says. “It would lack the authenticity of what we are trying to do.”

A few years ago, the frontman of edX suggested bringing in a well-known actor to teach a course on an experimental basis to see if students do better with someone like, say, Matt Damon, replacing the professor. . However, the experiment never took place.

Is McDonnell concerned that trying to model educational material on popular entertainment will lead to content reduction?

“Would you say Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary dumbs down the Civil War?” ” he has answered. “You can have interesting stories and you can have interesting learning. “

He says the proof of the approach is in the numbers. Tens of thousands of students have consumed the material, and they are watching the videos at much higher rates than before. A report released this week by Strayer shows that students in courses that used the material were 6% more likely to complete their courses and 5% more likely to persist until the next term than students who took the courses before the redesign.

So even though studio-assisted courses cost between $ 100,000 and $ 200,000 to create, McDonnell says, the effort pays off because “even very small changes in retention make up for that cost.”

When asked why Strayer didn’t just license videos to publishers rather than create his own, McDonnell said he “hasn’t found anything of production value that we’re happy with.” .

The university considers their studio a success and plans to expand it.

McDonnell says this will continue despite changes in the business – last week Strayer announced plans to merge with Capella Education Co., another large for-profit college in a $ 2 billion deal. . “After speaking with Capella, this may have some applicability on their side,” McDonnell says.

The key is Strayer’s top-down approach, which requires consistent adoption of material across many sections of a course. This is different from the way traditional nonprofit colleges administer their education, leaving each faculty member an extensive contribution to course design.

And Strayer isn’t the only one turning to production teams for course materials. Udacity, for example, has built courses in which presenters provide information rather than subject matter experts.

A tradeoff is that, because videos are more expensive to produce, updating them can also cost more.

Some nonprofit colleges that produce MOOCs, or massive open online courses, have experimented with different methods of production. Researchers at MIT, for example, conducted an analysis of various online courses in 2013, and one finding suggested that “Videos that intersperse an instructor’s talking head with PowerPoint slides are more engaging than showing only slides ”. In other words, it can be helpful to show someone’s face during online videos whether they are a celebrity or not.

Some of the most popular online teaching videos are the most low-fi. A few videos on Khan Academy, for example, have attracted millions of views, although they are mostly voiceovers of Sal Khan explaining concepts while he draws on a screen or annotates images.

In an interview last year, Khan described his style as “appreciating the material” and letting that show while he spoke in his videos. “I really appreciate it – my sense of wonder is engaged,” he said. “I’ll laugh every now and then because I make a mistake, and I think the students say, ‘OK, it’s OK to make mistakes, and it’s OK to laugh while doing math, and it seems be a small thing. But when was the last time you laughed, you know, doing a math problem? “