Should Video Lectures Be the New Normal in Higher Ed?

In the pandemic-era of online learning, professors have had to double as video producers. Hollywood-style lighting, new microphones, and cameras set (or stacked) to just the right height are just a few of the investments many have had to make. That’s in addition to time spent converting in-person teaching plans to video recordings. Professors are increasingly using videos to disseminate lectures and other instructional content to their students, and students are now watching hours of recorded videos each week for their courses.

Although this is the new normal, it provokes an important question: Are videos as effective for student learning as in-person instruction? Or has the nearly universal shift to remote, video-based learning resulted in a net learning loss for students?

A new meta-analysis provides insight into the effectiveness of instructional videos in higher education. The primary findings show that when instructional videos fully replace other methods like in-person instruction, videos are marginally more effective for student learning. But when videos are added to in-person instruction, students experience even greater learning gains.

These results are promising and should prompt a sigh of relief from professors who are worried about the effectiveness of their (potentially new) video-based teaching. After reading these results, some may ask: Is YouTube University a sufficient replacement for traditional classes? Are videos the future of higher education? Is higher education about to be … disrupted?

No. Maybe. And definitely not.

But these findings are still meaningful for online learners now, and for how professors design their online and in-person courses. Let’s break down what this meta-analysis tells us.

Michael Noetel and colleagues conducted a formal meta-analysis on 105 published research studies. Meta-analysis is a statistical technique that combines the effects of many studies to provide an overall evaluation of the effectiveness of an intervention, in this case, the use of instructional videos as compared to traditional modes of learning, such as in-person lectures. This meta-analysis is particularly notable because it included only randomized controlled trials, which afford stronger conclusions about the impact of an intervention and are often considered the “gold standard” of intervention research.

Replacing any other learning method, such as assigned readings or in-person lectures, with video had a significant, but small, positive effect on learning outcomes.

The primary result of this research is that replacing any other learning method, such as assigned readings or in-person lectures, with video had a significant, but small, positive effect on learning outcomes. This does not mean that video is always better, however. The effect size, or the magnitude of the difference in learning between the video-only students and the other learning method students was small, meaning that for nearly 80 percent of the students, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell what type of instruction they received based on their learning outcomes, such as tests or quizzes.

The results of the individual studies included in this analysis were also highly variable. This means that many studies showed that video is actually not better, and were sometimes worse for student learning. Most of the time, videos will be beneficial, but sometimes they will be less effective than other methods. Thus, across groups of students, learning via video was on average a bit better than more traditional forms of learning, but for an individual student, the results are much closer to chance.  

Meta-analyses also contain many results that don’t make it into the abstract. This meta-analysis conducted additional analyses (not all are covered here) to provide clarity about the specific conditions under which videos may be more effective for student learning than traditional methods.

Let’s examine the results a bit more closely.

First, the type of learning activity that the video replaces appears to matter. When a video replaces a static text (e.g., reading an assigned text) the positive effect of the video is moderate, meaning that for about 65 percent of students their learning outcomes (e.g. tests and quizzes) could not distinguish which learning mode group they were in. But, when the video replaced a human professor (e.g., in class lecture) the effect was quite small, with about 85 percent or so of overlap in student learning outcomes between the two groups. Videos are much more helpful when replacing static media but only marginally better when replacing a professor.

Second, interactivity—or how much interaction students have with the learning modality—also matters. Videos are not more effective when compared to live lessons that are more interactive than the video, but if both the video and the other learning activity are equally interactive or the video offers more interactivity, then videos are more effective. In other words, a recorded lecture may not be more effective than a highly engaging and interactive classroom!

These findings have clear applications for professors designing online courses: if you are in the position of providing either static text on a learning management system or recorded videos for an asynchronous course, then videos are probably the way to go.

But should videos replace live learning experiences (at least in an ideal, post-pandemic world)? What if they could enhance such learning experiences?

When the authors compared videos used as a supplement to typical teaching methods, the effects were large, meaning that about half of the students could be clearly distinguished as having received supplementary videos based on their learning outcomes, and that adding videos rarely resulted in negative effects on learning for students. Bottom line: adding videos to your course will nearly always be beneficial for student learning and will rarely have a negative effect.

That the largest effects of videos on student learning were when videos were used as a supplement to the professor’s in class instruction, rather than when videos replaced the in-person instruction, affirm the value of the flipped classroom pedagogy for student outcomes.

The largest effects of videos on student learning were when videos were used as a supplement to the professor’s in class instruction, rather than when videos replaced the in-person instruction.

A flipped-classroom approach typically involves students reading texts or watching recorded lectures outside of class then using the in-person class time to work collaboratively on activities and engage in discussion about the material. The efficacy of this pedagogical approach is strong: there is a continuously growing body of evidence that courses promoting active learning are most effective for student learning overall, and for underrepresented students in particular.

The results of this meta-analysis support the idea that students can gain most from watching recorded instructional content outside of class time on their own. Why is this the case? The authors propose that videos are often more streamlined and edited than in-person lectures, and importantly, students can work through the information at their own pace (rewind, re-watch, etc.) to enhance information retention. During synchronous class time, then, students can ask questions and collaboratively work through the content for a deeper learning experience.

The implications of this new meta-analysis demonstrate a clear benefit of instructional videos in higher education courses. The authors interpret the findings through the lens of multimode learning theory in that teaching in a more dynamic way that includes varied modes of information delivery is more effective than monomodal information delivery. This is a basic principle of learning experience design.

Although these results are informative and promising in the higher education context, we can’t make inferences about whether high school and grade school students would respond similarly to video instruction. But the basic principles the meta-analysis supports (e.g., multimodal learning, interactive classes, accessible instruction) remain foundations of good course design.

Videos have been used in higher education for decades, and these results certainly add value to the learning science literature. But these results don’t overturn what we already know, rather they confirm it. Unengaging and passive professors can be more easily replaced with technology, static text is boring, and supplemental video material enhances the classroom and learning experience.

Videos won’t replace the professor, just as Massive Open Online Courses didn’t replace the classroom, but rather this research shows how to best use videos to enhance the professor and classroom learning experience.