Video and the critical incident technique

I’ve been writing a bit about critical incident techniques this week and had a small thought about the use of video for observations. In their review of the technique, Butterfield et al (2005) describe how researchers have moved away from Flanagan’s (1954) emphasis on observation towards a model of participant reporting and interviews. They speculate that this may be because observation is ‘very labour intensive and therefore expensive to gather data in this way’ (pp 480-481). Heath, Hindmarsh & Luff (2010), however, describe digital video as a tool that offers a ‘cheap and reliable technology that enables us to record naturally occurring activities as they arise in ordinary habitats, such as the home, the workplace or the classroom. These records can be subject to detailed scrutiny. They can be repeatedly analysed and they enable access to the fine details of conduct and interaction that are unavailable to more traditional social science methods’ ( p 2). The use of digital video as a daat collection tool may, therefore, allow Flanagan’s emphasis on observation in critical incident analysis to to remerge.

Butterfield, L.,D., Borgen, W.A., Amundson, N., E., Maglio. A-S. T. (2005) Fifty Years of the critical incident technique: 1954-2004 and beyond. Qualitative Research 5(4):475-497
Flanagan, J.C. (1954) The Critical Incident Technique. Psychological Bulletin, 51(4): 327-358
Heath, C., Hindmarsh, J., Luff, P. 2010 Video in Qualitative Research: analysing social interacton in everyday life. Sage. London

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Happy medium

Watching some students work on a digital video project with a film and media professional recently led me to think about the relative importance of production quality in student-produced digital media. As he gave them a quick overview of lighting, shots and interview techniques I wondered where the balance should be between creativity, content and production values.

The use of ‘good enough’ and ‘fast, cheap and out of control’ technology, as mentioned by Martin Weller here, has the benefits of ease of use and the ability to share, collaborate and experiment easily:

‘In terms of scholarship it is these cheap, fast and out-of-control technologies in particular that present both a challenge and opportunity for existing practice. They easily allow experimentation and are founded on a digital, networked, open approach.’

Easy access to mobile phone video cameras and online video editors opens up the possibilities of creating digital video, as shown in this recent BBC report . The spirit of ‘just find good ideas and tell good stories’ shares something with this from a Jan 1977 punk fanzine (though I am obviously too young to remember the original):

While the main aim of the project is to get student to think about the use of image, to collaborate and to be creative then this approach seems appropriate and, although it is interesting and useful, a focus on production values could allow them to get sidetracked from their main goal. But in asking students to use a particular medium should we not have an expectation that they engage with the grammar and conventions of that medium? We expect students’ written work to follow rules of structure, grammar, punctuation and referencing, as well as standards of presentation, but we do not expect professional level graphic design. I don’t know the answer but I suspect there is a happy medium (ho ho) between content and convention in student-produced media and it will be interesting to explore where this may be.

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‘How Video Content is Revolutionising Learning’

This has annoyed me today:, and while I try not to get upset about stuff being wrong on the internet I have found that looking through the literature on using video in education this sort of ill-defined or unevidenced material also appears in much of the published research. The statstics are vague, made up or irrelevant and three of the four panels are nothing to do with learning.It was created by a company who produce an ‘enterprise video platform’, so it is possible that they have a vested interest and most of the sources are of the ‘x things you need to know about y’ variety, so may not be the most rigourously researched and are pretty much to do with marketing and sales.

Apparently,’people learn better and faster with video’ because ‘Visual information is processed 60000 times faster than text’. Even if the second claim is true, it has no relevance to learning. Does the brain’s speed of processing correlate with learning? Is watching a video on YouTube somehow 60000 times ‘better’ than reading the transcript? What is the relevance? And isn’t text visual information? In the literature (an in general education media) learning is often equated with remembering, but speed of processing is a novel correlation.

And speaking of remembering – ‘generally people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what tey hear’ etc. Which is all very good (especially if you accept that learning = remembering) unless you are concerned that these numbers are probably made up. They have been debunked lots of times (for example here: A quick web search would have sorted that out.

‘Video use is rapidly growing’. This is probably true, but there appears to be some confusion about the numbers – it will grow from 1.2 billion in 2013 by or to (not clear which) 1.5 billion in 2016 OR from 2.5 billion in 2013 to 5.4 billion in 2016. Both sets of numbers are given. The rise is probably explained by the fact that online video is relatively new (YouTube will only be 9 years old on Valentine’s Day and big online services such as Netflix or BBC iPlayer are newer still) and that there has been a rapid increase in mobile device use allowing users to produce, share and watch content more easliy. The fact that video use is increasing and it is easy to produce and share media is the attraction of looking at video for education, but the rise in itself tells us nothing about how it might usefully be used for learning (and not just remembering things or processing stuff reallly, really quickly). And doesn’t the claim that online videos account for 50% of mobile traffic just relate to the fact that video files are pretty big compared to text messages? These numbers tell us video is popular and the files are big, but not much about it’s usefulness for learning.

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Talking heads

Sadly not a post about the magnificent 70/80s art rockers, but about an interesting paper that I read recently (van Gog, Vermeer & Vermeer,2014, Computers & Education 72:323-327 (paywall may apply)), which is mildly related to my posting of 20 November on using video for modelng/demonstrations. The authors find that showing the model’s face in a video demonstration has no distracting effect and that it may even improve the viewer’s subsequent perfomance on the demonstrated task. Using eyetracking software they demonstrate that:

‘the majority of fixations, even in the condition that did see the model’s face, was on the ‘demonstration’ area in which the objects, the model’s pointing gestures, and the model’s manipulation of the objects took place. And even though participants in the condition that did see the model’s face spent some time observing the face that could not be spent on observing the demonstration, this was not detrimental to learning; in contrast, it even seemed to help learning.’

They contrast this with earlier studies that conclude that seeing the model’s face distracts the user’s focus on gestures. It would be interesting to see (or do!) a study on whether being able to see the speaker’s face has any effect on the effectivenss of or engagement with recorded lectures.

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Viewing times and attention spans

A couple of blogs recently have highlighted user viewing times as evidence of the effectiveness of short videos for teaching in HE.

Alan Cann ( uses viewing times on You Tube videos (which he suggests are around 45-85 seconds) to argue for short (< 5 mins) videos covering difficult to grasp or threshold concepts to supplement lecture material. Similarly, Philip Guo ( uses the viewing times of videos in edX MOOCs to show that the ‘optimal’ video length is 6 minutes. Both posts specifically mention students’ short attention spans.

I’m not sure that either of these explanations is persuasive in the HE setting. Firstly, the statistics upon which they are based are not context specific – You Tube videos cover pretty much everything from A ( to Z ( so the cited statistics are very general and, although the modules formats are not mentioned, the MOOC learning experience, and the student body so far as we know it, is not typical to that of the majority of HE (even distance learners).  Secondly, I’m not sure that either justifies a claim that students using video online have a shortened attention span as the research seems to show a more complex picture. For example, Leadbeater et al (Computers and Education, 2013, 61:185-192), show students having different viewing patterns when using recorded lectures, with some viewing the whole thing and others moving between sections, and de Boer et al (Computers in Education, 2011, 56(3):727-735) identifying four viewing styles for instructional videos among a group of undergraduate students : linear (watching a video from beginning to end), elaboration (watching a video again after viewing it completely), maintenance (watching parts of a video repeatedly) and zapping (skipping through with relatively short viewing intervals).

Based on this I’m not sure that it is possible to make generalisations about optimal video lengths or short attentions spans.

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Video for instruction – lessons learned

Those of us who, unfortunately, reached adult life before 1994, when the UK government introduced new electrical safety legislation, will probably be familiar with the process of wiring a plug. For some (including me), other than dimly remembered physics classes at school, this is the extent of their electrical knowledge.

Recently, I foolishly thought that this experience qualified me to replace the light in my bathroom. The diagrams that came with the new light, showing how the live, neutral and earth wires fitted into it, only confirmed my misplaced confidence. On removing the old light I was confronted by 3 cables, each with 3 wires protruding, and a light fitting with 4 slots for incoming wires. It turns out that, the light is connected in sequence to another light and to an extractor fan and things were a bit more tricky than I imagined.

Being a tight-fisted sort, I resorted to Google before ringing an electrician. After a bit of searching the following two videos came to my rescue and the lamp was fitted with only the aid of a £10 electric circuit tester:

This experience reminded me that, although my research is mostly concerned with using video for purposes other than straightforward instruction, such as student-produced media or using video for reflecting on practice, I might have underestimated the affordances of instructional video for practical work as discussed in this paper and outlined by Jack Kuoni here: So, assuming my house doesn’t burn down, more than some wiring tips were learned.

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Adding interaction to recorded lectures using Twitter

Below is a screen shot from a sample web page that I and a couple of colleagues produced last week. The idea was to complement recorded lectures with an easy-to-use way for students to discuss and comment on the content.


Using Twitter hashtags to live tweet events is not particularly new but I was looking for a way to allow students to do this with recordings.  The idea is that each lecture in the playlist has a unique, automatically generated, hastag (which will probably be based on the module and date of the lecture) – clicking on the playlist link starts the video and displays a panel showing the tweets containing the hastag. Anyone wanting to comment on or discuss the lecture can then just tweet and include the hastag. Unfortunately, the Twitter API makes it difficult to do dynamic hashtag searches so a clever and helpful colleague came to the rescue with some code here. The task now is to put it into practice with some willing academics/students.

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