In our world of e-Learning, video has become an important element in the mix of all the modalities we use as practitioners of the art of online instruction. But much of the advice and common wisdom about this medium simply gets it wrong.
Ten Myths about Video in e-Learning
- Part 1
- Part 2
This article took its inspiration from the many sessions I’ve attended at conferences over the years and from the many comments that I’ve seen in online forums where many things were said that just aren’t true. At best, those who provided this misinformation didn’t have the correct information, or they lacked experience, or in the worst cases were pushing some strange sales agenda.
Shaking up people’s beliefs can be dangerous, and it can be ugly. I might shake up some people’s strongly held beliefs, but there are some things that need to be said about myths that many in e-Learning have come to accept as true. Let me begin by offering a little personal perspective to explain (at least in part) my biases.
It used to be expensive to make video, but money is no longer an issue. The cost of entry into video when I started was somewhere north of $1,000,000 and was probably more like $2.0 to 2.5 million dollars. I don’t even want to think about what it would be in today’s dollars. Cameras were huge. Going on location to shoot video meant you needed a truck loaded with cameras, thick cables, and lights (cameras needed either sunlight or very bright lights), and you needed find someplace with lots of power where you could hook up.
Today, the cost of entry is a few hundred dollars for camera and software … heck, not even that much if you’re using a Flip. Macs and PCs come with serviceable editing programs baked into their respective operating systems. The barrier is a great deal lower than it once was.
Moreover, video is a true democracy. Anyone can do it. And sometimes it seems like everyone is doing it! But in training, we have to do it intelligently and “therein lies the rub.” There are lots of videos on YouTube that were not done intelligently. There are scores of television series and specials, and movies (both shorts and features) that are not done intelligently. From concept to script to shoot (or not if you’re making video-not-video) to post production to delivery, professionals in the e-Learning field need to think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and how we’re going to get it done as quickly and as inexpensively as we can. (Editor’s note: “video-not-video” refers to video done with stills and words ... moving the stills and the words around.)
Here’s my bottom line: we all spend too much time making video more difficult than it needs to be. We spend too much time thinking about equipment (especially if you’re an equipment nut like me!). We spend too much time fiddling with that equipment, fidgeting with our computers, etc. We spend too much time with the wrong information and defending all the myths that surround the production of quality video. These are the ideas behind this article.
Video myths in e-Learning
Much of the information presented here is from some fresh research and the rest is from the school of hard knocks. And I’ve had a lot of knocks making video.
Myth: Macs are better than PCs for making video
I can hear all the Mac lovers screaming now. So before anyone gets all wound up on the Mac "powdered flavored beverage," I own both. I love my Mac. I love my PC. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years to try to prove that my Mac is superior. I can’t, and it’s not. And here’s why, at least from a subjective and somewhat objective standpoint:
The Mac uses a processor made by Intel, leverages Apple’s flavor of UNIX (a highly modified form of BSD), and lays the Mac OS interface on top. Is UNIX a superior operating system to Windows? That is a different argument. Windows takes a processor made by Intel and lays the operating system directly on it. In general, while I would have said that Windows Vista was an inferior operating system and an unmitigated disaster, Windows 7 is a thoroughly modern OS that simply works.
If you looked at my PC (or my Mac for that matter), I’ve got a consistently messy desktop, but the rest of my desktop looks like XP or an even earlier version of Windows. I just dumb down the interface to use as little of the system resources as possible and save those resources for video editing and compositing. And I do the same with my Mac: plain background, less fancy menu system, etc.
I’ve run several benchmarks with Premiere Pro on both platforms and the PC actually wins this contest most of the time with identical processors. When running Final Cut Pro (FCP) on my Mac, it is, sad to say, about 35-40% slower doing renders. After Effects, which has no OS X version or equivalent, is even slower on the Mac. Sigh. I can’t win, but for those who work in corporate environments where PCs are mandatory, don’t worry. Both are easy to work with, so you won’t have any trouble with a PC. For that matter, my Mac has crashed three times in the past year and I’ve had zero Blue Screens of Death (BSDs) on my Windows 7 PC, which I couldn’t say about Vista.
The bottom line here is to use what you’ve got. It’s not a myth that it takes as much memory as you can afford to make video. My video-making machine is a laptop (really). It has a pretty powerful dual-core processor (I’m going to move up soon to a laptop with a quad-core processor), but more importantly, it has 8GB of RAM and two hard drives that have 1TB of storage space and a separate 1GB video card. This laptop is very close to a desktop in terms of capacity and capability, and I can take it with me wherever I go to work. To be sure, it’s not as fast as a good desktop at rendering, but it’s pretty darn quick. It gets the job done. And yes, it’s a PC. Maybe it’s not as pretty as a MacBook Pro, but there’s no MacBook Pro that can hold two hard drives and that has an eSATA port for an external drive. And my PC cost at least $1000 less than an equivalent Mac when I bought it (I priced out a Mac too!).
Myth: Final Cut Pro is the only good video editing software
The short answer here is: Give me a break! All video editing software is about the same. All video editing software offers scene selections, a timeline and some built-in effects. That’s pretty much the long and the short of it. To be sure, Final Cut Pro is a terrific program. So is Premiere Pro. So is Vegas Video Professional. And most e-Learning projects probably only need the “light” versions of these programs in any case. Arguing for a program that is overkill for a project is a waste of time and money. The “Pro” versions all have some elementary compositing , titling, elementary effects, lots of support for different formats (which I will address in the next part of this series), and lots of other goodies. The only real differences are in their interfaces and shortcuts, and even those differences are minor. So don’t get your shorts tied in a knot if you can’t get Final Cut Pro. The other programs are just as good.
Myth: Flash is the best streaming media software / QuickTime is the best media streaming software
Flash is everywhere … nearly every computer has it installed. That’s the upside. QuickTime isn’t everywhere. But “best” is a more complicated matter than a QuickTime vs. Flash comparison. You won’t have much trouble showing Flash content on Macs and PCs. But once you get to mobile devices made by Apple, it’s a different game – for now. For whatever reason, Apple has ordained that Flash will not be shown on their iPhone or iPad. This is bad news for Flash creators. Or not. But is the market going to be that big for iPads, iPhones, etc? I don’t think so. Not in the overall scheme of things. Check out the last myth in this article.
So which is the best streamer for video? I think there are other options that are just as robust and that can make files small enough so the streaming bitrate is low enough to get over almost anything except dial-up services (different issue altogether). Let’s look at a few of the reasons to use Flash.
Why is Flash so ubiquitous? First, Adobe did a great job making it freely available for the masses of PCs and Macs. Second, it’s a pretty good streaming (or progressive download – see below) container.
Remember that when making video for the Web, there are two things that have to be considered (from outside to inside). First, the streaming container. Flash is a container (the file it makes is called a .swf). So is QuickTime (it makes a .mov). So is Silverlight.
Second, each of these containers has a file format that’s held inside it. For Flash, if you’re making your streaming file from Adobe products, it may well be a .flv or an .f4v. Both are flash video files. It could also be an H.264, an MPEG-4, an MPEG-2, a wmv, or an avi, or some other format . H.264 is the one making the most noise these days. But H.264 is primarily designed for HD video. It needs to be inside a QuickTime or Flash file as its own container.
Is Flash the best of all the containers in the marketplace? In a word – no. However, it’s a pretty good platform for making animation, video and other multimedia available to anyone who has a computer.
Flash is not just a platform for streaming video. It’s an animation platform, it’s a programming platform, and it’s a whole lot of other things that no other software out there can match. It’s true enough that Flash has become more of a programmer’s tool over the last few versions. Now there’s a product called Flash Catalyst that allows developers to create Flash with interactivity, without having to write code. I think it may be that Adobe finally realized that Flash had lost its early core of followers, the designers, and so they went back to an understanding that coders are frequently engineers and what they make sometimes doesn’t look pretty and sometimes it isn’t easy to navigate.
QuickTime, on the other hand, isn’t exactly like Flash. The two are similar, but not alike, in that they are media containers. Flash is designed more for streaming. QuickTime (QT) is also a desktop application. You can save your video as QT, but it’s not going to be as easy to put into, say, a Website that you’re making with Dreamweaver.
One important thing to remember is that whichever codec you use, it’s going to compress your video project. All the codecs are lossy, which means there is a loss in quality. If you want to see what happens to any lossy compression format, open a .jpg in Photoshop and save it as a different file. Open that file and save it as a different file. You’re going to start to see some artifacts like blockiness in some areas, and the more often the file is compressed, the worse the image will look. The same thing happens in video. And you’re going to compress your video at least twice, if not more times. Uncompressed video is very expensive to shoot and edit. The file sizes are enormous and the hardware you need to use is also very expensive.
Myth: You need a streaming server to play your videos
If you store your video locally, on your own servers, it’s probably delivered as a progressive download. While this isn’t a problem for most video services that you provide, it does become an issue in high volume instances and a few other circumstances. There are advantages for progressive downloads and there are advantages for streaming.
If you look at movie trailers on the Apple site, you’re actually watching progressively downloading video. One advantage of a progressive download from your server is that you can make the files in a way that allows them to be saved on the viewer’s computer. That’s also a disadvantage in many cases. It all depends on what your server’s bandwidth and memory are like. Streaming servers aren’t free. You can buy the streaming service, you can rent space on someone else’s server, or you can buy the software and house it on your server. Obviously, with the outside streaming service there is a hacking opportunity and your video might not be as private as it would be with a server inside your firewall.
There are several cases in which a streaming server is more practical (and I’m borrowing this from Adobe):
- A live video broadcast (Webcast or whatever you want to call it)
- A really long video (over 15 or so minutes) makes streaming more practical
- A situation in which you want the viewer to be able to jump to a part later in the video
- A situation in which you want to make it almost impossible (other than using screen capture) for the viewer to save the video on their own computer.
- A case in which you must eliminate the wait time for low-bandwidth users.
The last item might be counterintuitive. Streaming video servers and services, such as YouTube, actually sense your bandwidth and send you a video that has appropriate quality for your bandwidth. Doing that means there are many instances of the same video on the server and if it senses a low bandwidth client, then it sends out a low quality video. The disadvantage is if you need to show high quality video, then streaming may not be for you.
Myth: You need to consider portable devices (smartphones, iPads, etc.) when you’re making your video
Well, of course, you should consider every single device that can play back video. But even with all the fuss being made about it, mLearning really has limited value in the overall scheme of training. JIT (Just-In-Time) training is an obvious choice where you must make allowances for very small screens and people on the move. Small screens, no matter how good, are still small and people have less ability to learn from a small space. While there may be 87 or 88 mobile devices with the ability to deliver readable or viewable content, most of that reading or viewing is done in the in-between times. This is why JIT is perfect for the small screen. Smartphones and tablets (like the iPhone and iPad) are becoming very common these days, but are they right for learning when the learning objective takes some quiet time and mind space? The jury is still out on this. These devices are too new. But there’s certainly a lot of noise being made now about them. So if you’re making JIT training or if you think your training needs to be deployed on a small screen, then by all means make your video in a format for portable devices.
More myths coming
Are these the most important myths? If they were, you wouldn’t be interested in the second article. I tried to balance all the myths, because some are more important than others. Some myths are sacred cows to some people (myths wouldn’t be perpetuated if this wasn’t the case), and those people can’t see past the myths they create in their own minds. If I can offer one more bit of advice, don’t become a slave to your own myths about video production. In the end, video production is a job that we all have to do in order to make the bigger picture that is our training, and if we can do it more efficiently, and not bog down our production with myths, wrong ideas and time-wasting concepts, we’re better off for it.
In the next article, I’m going to explore five more myths, including the one that (it seems to me) may be the most important myth cherished by many in this world of e-Learning and training.