Can Video be optimized for Communication & Learning? Elizabeth Choe Tells Us How

Fast Facts


Being interviewed: Elizabeth Choe MIT
Topic: The role of video as a learning tool and how to optimize video for learning
Why are we talking about it?: Recent events have pushed many workers into the cloud, and have businesses mobilised to convert their offerings to a digital format. Video is a powerful media for virtual communication and learning.
Also, we used Elizabeth’s paper as a key resource for designing and producing our human+ Program targetting the development of in-demand uniquely human skills.
Elizabeth’s paper is here:
And you can read more about her here:


Simply said: yes! According to Elizabeth, the keys to an effective video are  1. Write how you talk. 2 Talk to your audience, don’t read to them. 3. Don’t be a frozen presenter

1. Showcase a person of interest 2. Showcase demonstrations, experiments, and hands-on procedures. 3. Showcase places or events not easily accessible and contextualize and/or visualize concepts

a) Coherence: Try to avoid adding unnecessary material (don’t throw every tool and effect in the book at every scene) . b) Signaling: Add visual or musical cues to highlight ideas. c) Redundancy: Animation with narration is better than animation, narration, and onscreen text. d) Spatial Contiguity: Keep text and related graphics close to each other on-screen, not far apart. e) Temporal Contiguity: Have related graphics and narration happen at the same time, not successively. f) Modality: Graphics and narration work better than graphics and text. g) Image: Having someone explain something on-screen isn’t inherently better than having a narrated animation – if you’re showing someone, make sure there’s a reason. (Mayer 2009)

About Elizabeth

Before graduate school, Elizabeth spent several years in science media and communication strategy. She developed the creative media strategy for MIT Undergraduate Admissions and researched communities of online learning for the MIT Media Lab’s Learning Initiative. She developed the program strategy, original web series development, teaching, and outreach programs for the MIT+K12 Videos Program at MIT Open Learning. The FWSA used Elizabeth’s research, in particular the paper ‘Optimizing Video for Learning’, as one of the key sources of guidance for our program videos.

Elizabeth is a true polymath and is now a second-year Ph.D. student in Biological Engineering at MIT. Her interests lie at the intersection between biotechnology and public engagement, movies related to outer space, and hand lettering.

We met at MIT to talk all things video learning.

FWSA: Elizabeth, we are always interested in what sparks a person’s passion. Tell us about what got you interested in video as a learning medium?

Elizabeth: When I was a kid what got me interested in science was a TV show called the Jeff Corwin Experience. He is a biologist who is actually from Massachusetts, from the Boston area. I grew up in the middle of Missouri and I was an only child until I was 11 so I had a lot of free time. I watched his show and I was so inspired by how he explored the world around him and the love and joy that he had in discovering something new about his surroundings.

I would watch his show and I would run outside to my backyard and I would pretend to be him and uncover insects under the rocks. That show actually really had a profound impact on what I ended up doing with my life. I had a love of biology, that really extended through high school, then I came to MIT to study biological engineering and instead of studying giant worlds and swamps and rain forests like he did, I studied really microscopic worlds and microscopic organisms

About halfway through my undergrad, through completely serendipitous events, I met the CEO of a production company that happened to make science television and I felt like I was coming full circle and the 10-year-old self was converging with the young adult self. I started working for him, working on some science productions and I realised that I didn’t want to be at the bench but to explain what people do at the bench to the world through video and media.

When I graduated an opportunity came up to join MIT+K12 videos, a program that I had been involved with as a student. The Program is about students teaching other students through video. It was around the time the MIT launched an Office of Digital Learning and it was just around the time that EdX started their interest in MOOCs, I really feel that I got to where I am by a law of happy accidents.

I had always informally thought about media and video and the influence on my life but through MIT+K12 videos, I started thinking more formally about what it means for something to be meaningful. Why is it that Jeff Corwin’s television show had such a profound impact on me, how do we create best practices around it so that we can continue to make media that adapts to what kids need to know now, or what kids are inspired by now?

That is how I started thinking about informal media and how it facilitates learning and what meaningful learning really is. I’m interested in it from the perspective of how it sparks curiosity. There are definitely a lot of established practices and fields in media facilitated learning as we now think about it, as we now assess it through competencies and demonstrated skills. But how do you quantify the amount of curiosity that a video sparks in a kid? That’s a much harder question to answer but I think a much more interesting one to me personally.

FWSA: And that is a key focus of your research and your advice in making videos an engaging learning tool. You use some really interesting examples of what works (and doesn’t and why) in your Optimize paper. In your survey of the past decades what strikes you as new and transformational in this space?

Elizabeth: I don’t know if you saw it in the paper but there are two videos that I think are very interesting to compare side by side. One of them is a physics introductory physics video in an EdX course and one a physics video that came out of MIT in the 1960s, they’re almost exactly the same, in terms of format, in terms of somebody showing a small demonstration and then the instructor stands at the chalk board and they explain how the physical phenomena that they just demonstrated relates to the equation.

Audience participation: 👉🏻 here are the two videos in question:

                                   1960s                                              2015

Nothing has changed except for maybe the camera quality is a little nicer and maybe the way they speak on camera is a little bit different, but I was so stunned when I saw that because there is no real big difference in the video itself.

The biggest change in the past decades is not in the design or production of videos but in how people can interact with them. In the 60’s a series was created by the US Physical Science Study Committee (check them out here) which was the first time anyone had really tried making physics materials to be distributed throughout school in the US. They were movies that were mailed out to different classrooms and then a teacher in Ohio would play the movie for his or her classroom.

The most significant change in the 21st century is the way people can watch these videos on mobile devices and they can write on a forum in real time which might be moderated by the video creator and somebody else watching the same video in India can respond to their comment minutes after. So there is an opportunity to interact and make meaning with the creators of the video, with the wider audience and with the video itself.

In terms of thinking about what we show on screen not a lot has changed, which is a little disheartening. Rather than focus on the technical I think the potential for innovation lies in the ability of video to spark curiosity, to encourage participatory and/or social learning and build identity and to engage with a person of interest.

FWSA: Which is principally why we chose to include video as part of our mixed media approach to learning content. We had world class experts who we wanted to deliver meaningful programs globally. And we needed a medium that could scale. But the review of hundreds of educational videos across the world left us uninspired. It was during our due diligence that I realised that every professional needs to learn how to use video to communicate their message.

Elizabeth: Absolutely.

FWSA: Where do you see the innovation in video as a communication medium going? What advice would you have for people to improve their skills in this area?

Elizabeth: I feel like my answer is really not that complicated, I really don’t hope to see everyone carrying around 4K cameras on their phones or anything like that, I just want to see people able to be themselves on screen. Honestly, some of the most profound research around multimedia and learning, some of the most impactful best practices that have come out of that research are just very simple things, like speak like you normally would and have normal body language and be a human being on screen.

I do see some papers out there that are trying to analyse what are the optimum number of words per minute you should say or how should you incorporate virtual reality in your videos and things like that but honestly you think about throughout your life, in anything, whether it’s a movie or a teacher or a life experience, nobody says ‘I had a virtual reality experience and it really impacted what I wanted to do or how I thought about this certain thing. I think it can certainly help facilitate impact but foundationally I don’t think technological tools are ever going to be the thing that alters the course of someone’s life. It is people that do that.

In 5 years I’d just like to see better videos with people where I feel like I am talking to that person or that they are talking to me directly. A good recent example of this is the Masterclass series. It is essentially a commercialised MOOC and the courses that they teach, it’s very high-level production, big budgets, and big talent who is a person of interest. It’s Gordon Ramsay teaches you cooking.

Technologically it’s not really a mind-blowing thing, it’s just like a little bit of overkill you know but people are going to shell out money because it creates a sense of intimacy and personal connection with these very big name people and that opportunity is enticing to people, I think for a reason, it’s not to say that I’m hoping that 5-years from now that every MOOC is going to be like Masterclass but I do think Masterclass has tapped into what is a very compelling thing for people which is a feeling of direct connection to of someone of interest.

FWSA: And as you remarked earlier you don’t believe that Virtual Reality ever changed somebody’s life but a human being can, like Jeff Corwin did for you.

Elizabeth: Exactly, and again, that’s not to say that these tools aren’t important and that we shouldn’t continue to innovate with them but no amount of, we could have a Masterclass budget and try to film a EdX course and if the faculty member isn’t speaking like a normal human being, there is no amount of virtual reality that can overcome that, it’s just such a foundational thing that the technology has to work with and not as a band aide to cover up.

FWSA: Given that uniquely human skills are the subject of our curriculum at the Academy we chose to use people of interest as the key mode of delivery. Can you summarise the main points of consideration for the talent delivering the content?

Elizabeth: Probably the most succinct way I can say it is directly from my paper:

  1. Personalization: For scripts, first person, active voice, and contractions are much better than formal, academic styles of writing. Write how you talk.
  2. Voice: “Natural” styles of speaking are better than robotic, or machine-like. Talk to your audience, don’t read to them.
  3. Embodiment: If you’re on-screen,“human-like” gestures like slight movement of the arms/hands, eye contact, blinking, and normal facial expressions are better. Don’t be a frozen presenter.

But the main thing is to be human.

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