Section 3: Creating your content

Video styles

There are many types of educational videos that are inexpensive to create but still look good. This paragraph starts with some examples for such styles and discusses the relation between a video‘s style and the intended learning. Furthermore, a number of salient visual features and few aspects concerning production and learning will be looked at.

The virtual blackboard with narration but without a talking head has been made popular by Salman Khan on YouTube. The standard alternative to Khan style is a screencast of slides plus narration plus a small talking head. If all you have is just a photograph, a diagram, or a map, you can use the Ken Burns effect: The virtual camera pans across and zooms into the picture. Slowly, of course, to prevent motion sickness. If the focus is on a story rather than on formulas or bullet points, you may use the entire frame for a person, with or without accompanying text.

A very lean way to create videos is to capture regular lectures, possibly by filming a teacher in front of a blackboard. However, Khan style
and narrated slides can also be done in a live lecture. For metaphorical demonstrations lego bricks, putty, and other props can be very helpful. If you want to show complex constructions, you can work in small, incremental changes and record a single frame of the video after every such change: “stop motion”. In STEM subjects, you may also want to show real experiments, say, with hockey pucks or with insects or bacteria. In particular for trailer videos, some MOOC makers reenact movies or impersonate celebrities. Note that some of these styles require a legal check. For instance, in a lecture recording, students may be visible; some manufacturers of toys or of expensive products may use their trademark rights to limit how these may be shown in public; and copying the style of a movie may violate rights of the studio.

When choosing a style, the first question to ask is what this video needs to be good for: Do you want to demonstrate a procedure? Do you want illustrate a theory in physics? Do you want to motivate the participants to endure an upcoming lengthy derivation? The objectives change from video to video, and so will the optimum style. Creativity trumps production value, so have a camera or a smartphone at hand all of the time. For instance, during a vacation you may have a chance of recording a video for a MOOC on dramaturgy while standing in the ruins of an ancient theater.
Khan-style videos may look more attractive if the lecturer’s writing hand is visible. The cheapest way to achieve this is to record both the hand and the writing (on plain paper) with a single camera. For videos that show a person speaking, you have to think about the background. No background at all is best for visual clarity. If you use a green screen background, however, you can easily repurpose the video, for instance by replacing the background with the logo of a sponsor. You may want to film on location, for instance in a historic library. Before doing so, better make sure that you have the necessary filming rights.
Two important aspects concerning style need to be mentioned: production and learning. First, live recordings are far quicker to produce and to edit. If you are alone in the studio and can redo a video without boring an audience it is very likely that you will do so. This leads to a huge number of attempts and fragments. Second, empirical data suggest that users take fewer quizzes if the video before is longer than six minutes. So, shorter videos seem to be more engaging. In addition, they should be easier to repurpose for other contexts.

There is the saying that form follows function. But you have to keep in mind that the term “function” can also refer to not-so-obvious aspects. One of those aspects may be to signal to the viewer that much care has been applied when creating the MOOC. Hence, production value that is too low may backfire, even though the content and the didactics are perfect. Luckily, in our days of YouTube, the audience is very forgiving concerning production value. Another tricky aspect of style as a signal is whether the rendition is rehearsed or not: Rehearsed narration may or may not sound boring; improvised narration may sound authentic at best or unfocused at worst. Improvising complicated mathematical derivations in front of a live audience may even come across as bragging.

Graphics design

To produce good-looking videos costs almost nothing more than to produce bad-looking ones. There are a number of easy-to-follow design principles to follow, one of which will be spelled out in more detail: less is more. Your choice of presentation technique has an effect on the amount of work to be invested. Our goal is to create videos that look far better than their production seems to be worth. In addition, to maximize learning, you want videos that are visually lightweight, videos that don‘t overload the visual sense.

The best way to achieve both goals – that is: inexpensive production and easy perception – is to reduce what is shown. Get rid of lines, for instance in a table, but use spacing instead. Pick only one font and use it at only two, maybe three sizes. Use only one color for almost everything; use a second color for very important things. Do not show ten poor pictures but look for one great image and display it at a large size. Avoid using clipart simply to have a picture on every slide, since, according to Richard Mayer‘s research, this tends to be distracting.

Many lecturers love “slideuments”, that is: hybrids of slides and documents, slides with lots of text in complete sentences. This style seems to save work, because you do not have to create a deck of slides and lecture notes but get away with creating a single file. However, a slideument is too ugly for a presentation and still too terse to serve as lecture notes.

Three items per slide is ok for academic purposes; in a keynote you may want to go with one single item per slide. At any rate, it is easier to handle fewer items both for learning and during recording and editing. It can be a good idea to show all items on a slide at once, in order to provide context immediately.
Here are some very effective and cheap ideas on how to arrange different elements on a slide: First of all, switch on the grid and the snapping function, so that the placement is adjusted automatically. Even better, make use of functions that ensure perfect alignment of one object with another or perfect distribution of several objects in a series. Microsoft PowerPoint, for instance, displays lines that guide you as you drag an object. A standard mistake during layout is to make a picture wider or narrower in relation to its width than it originally was; this will always look unprofessional.
Use only one font and no fancy one at that. “Comic Sans” makes designers cringe. Writing in all-caps is hard to read and looks like shouting in a comic. Underlining is ugly and a typographic sin of the early days of the web. For easier reading, line breaks need to follow the logic of the text, which means there is the need to put them in by hand, by pressing shift-return.

If you want to create your own graphics, you can look into techniques for graphic recording, or for sketchnotes. These are quick and cartoonish representations of objects and processes, very much in line with Khan-style videos. You do not need to bother with learning how to realistically draw faces. Simple cartoons are ok. Another lesson to learn from Khan style is to not immediately show a complicated diagram, but to show the process of its creation, along with a narrated explanation. And finally, but different from Khan style, do not use colors simply to be colorful. Rather, make sure that you use each different color and each different stroke width to have a specific meaning over the entire course. For instance, arrows depicting voltage may always be red and thick.

Preparation for recording videos

Changing habits

A low-cost production requires thinking about many things upfront to prevent awkward editing sessions afterwards. First, it is best to get rid of some unfavorable habits beforehand. In addition, you need to prepare a kind of “assembly line” for videos. Templates save lots of work in the process; and so do some ideas on how to set up the studio. Finally, some preparation is to be done each day before recording.

Some distracting or even annoying habits are hard to fix during editing. Make some test recordings and ask people for feedback, for instance on YouTube, whether or not they think you say “um” too often or smack your lips to indicate the start of a new topic. Maybe, you bury your hands deep in your pockets. Maybe you tend to mumble when there is no live audience. You may speak too slow or too hasty. Or you may not be looking into the camera when supposed to be doing so. Getting rid of all such behavior takes some weeks; so start early.


Efficiency is vital for an inexpensive production. You need to set up a workflow and stick with it: How do you name files? Where do you put them? How do you backup the data? For instance, you can use two external drives to have separate sets of backups. Keep them disconnected from the computer most of the time so that malware cannot easily ruin the backups. A checklist is great for the daily routine: Which programs have to be started? Which settings have to be made by hand because they cannot be saved, for instance for the webcam?


Templates enable you to focus on content and pedagogy: You do most of the design and settings upfront and then reuse that. Most presentation software offers master slides in which you can define the overall layout, fonts, branding and the like. Video editing software often offers ready-made templates. You may also create your own styles of titles and banners and save an otherwise empty video project to start all individual video projects from. Depending on the video editing program, you may be able to save settings for color corrections and audio effects and reuse them everywhere.


To keep the style of your videos coherent and to be able to redo a video possibly weeks later, your makeshift setup has to be repeatable. This includes the location, the lighting, your clothing, the placement of the camera and your position. You need to note down settings and put tape on the floor and/or on the desk to mark positions. Indirect lighting is easier to reproduce because highlights and shadows cannot be in the wrong place when they simply do not exist. If you use a large microphone find a spot for it where it is close to the mouth but safely stays out of the visible frame of the camera. The sound quality is vital. You need to make test recordings to check for problems with room resonances or reverberation and to check for all kinds of noise.


Besides the general setup, there is a day-to-day routine to be followed. Standard presentations require slides, possibly a script for the narration. Khan-style videos are easier to create on the basis of a storyboard, that is: a sketch of what is going to be sketched. It can be beneficial to create slides, scripts, or storyboards on the day of the recording or on the day before. This way, you probably remember during recording which ideas you had during preparation. To prevent surprises, for instance when the sun breaks through the clouds, you want to use artificial lighting exclusively. Each day, you want to check the placement and the settings of the camera and the microphone. And you have to look for random new problems, for instance reflections in the lecturer’s spectacles (in which case you may want to remove the lenses from them).

Recording videos

To keep the production of videos as efficient as possible, your main goal during recording should be to reduce the amount of time spent on editing afterwards. This section starts with some technical preparation, highlighting some issues to avoid during recording. It goes on to propose important recommendations about things to do during recording which will allow you to edit the video quickly. Finally, there is some advice for those sitting alone in their studio.

Technical preparation

First of all, do not set your mobile phone to silent, but set it to flight mode or switch it off. Otherwise, an incoming call may still lead to radio frequency interference in the microphone. You may already have heard that noise sounding like “deedit deedeedit”.
Before starting every recording, have a look at the volume meter of your program or of the camcorder: Is the voice too loud or too quiet? And possibly, some position has shifted ever so slightly, so that suddenly the breathing becomes audible or you produce a “pop” noise when speaking a word with a “p”.
When you are recording Khan-style videos, it is friendly to immediately have something on the screen to catch the viewers’ attention. This means you have to start writing or drawing before you press the start button.
It also is friendly to not show the window frames and menus of the presentation program. Hence, if you are using drawing software as a virtual whiteboard, make sure to keep toolboxes out of the screen recording or, even better, only use keyboard shortcuts to switch between different tools.

=During recording

There are some simple things you can do during recording to speed up editing afterwards:
If you are using several recordings in parallel, for instance two camcorders plus a screen recording program, you have a hard time getting those recordings in sync. This can be made easier using a technique inspired by the clapperboard used for the movies – you can draw a quick stroke on the screen and at the very same moment say a word with a clear beginning such as “bee”.
You can do much to help with cutting – pauses are easy to find and edit out, so do not hesitate to make a pause and think about what to say next. Pauses are also ideal for editing out mistakes; do not repeat starting in the middle of a sentence.
You may use clapping or a bell to mark a good take or a bad one; such acoustic markers are easily visible in the waveform displayed for the audio track.
Finally, make sure that you are looking into the camera for two seconds before you start to speak and for two seconds after you have stopped speaking.
Recording alone
If you are sitting alone in the studio, you tend to sound and look like that, too. A simple method to help with this, is to put a drawing of a smiley or a person’s photo next to the camera. A far more effective method is to invite at least one person to act as your live audience. For best results, you should look at him or her while you are presenting. With an audience, it is easier to be theatrical, just as needed for the stage. If you are alone, you need to make sure to speak commas, periods, and question marks by making pauses and by using an appropriate melody. The icing on the cake is to emphasize words that deserve it.

Postprocessing and editing

Sometimes, you can‘t fully remedy all visual and acoustic problems before or during recording, in particular when recording outside of a studio. Hence, both the picture as well as the sound may need digital improvement. This is when the actual process of editing starts – finding and putting together the good pieces.
It is important to do the cleanup before cutting. This way, the changes are consistent throughout the entire resulting video – plus, you work on stretches of footage that are as long as possible. By cropping off parts at the sides of the video frame, you get rid of distracting furniture in the background or you get rid of window frames on the screen, though, of course, it is better to not record them in the first place. Faces almost always need color correction to look natural. And if you did shoot video without a tripod (which you should avoid), many video editing programs offer a function to reduce the shakiness of that video.

The names of the techniques for cleaning up audio sound intimidating. But some are easy to use, very helpful, and are available even in video editing software that costs less than 100 €:

Equalization, best in form of a parametric equalizer can add more bite to muffled voices or reduce the boominess of a recording in a resonant room.
If there is a constant noise, for instance power line humming or hissing from the air conditioning, this can be removed well by noise reduction. All you need is to provide the program with a fingerprint of the noise, that is: a second or two of that noise with no other sound at the same time.
Dynamics compression evens out the volume of louder and quieter passages. This is what you need, for instance, when a speaker has used a hand-held microphone but has kept changing the distance between mouth and microphone.

If you find that the speech is plodding, you may want to speed up the video by ten to twenty percent. On the audio processing side this means that the pitch has to be corrected to still sound normal. Otherwise, for extreme settings the voice turns into that of Mickey Mouse.

Virtually every video editing program works non-destructively, that is, it does not change the original files. A project file of the editing program only describes which editing operation and which effect to apply where. Eventually, the resulting video is created as a brand-new file. This is tricky in two respects: first, you have to make sure to not only backup the project files but also all of the original video files as well; second, as you are never actually discarding any part of the video, you can keep on fiddling about for days. Don’t fall into that trap! First get the big chunks approximately right, and only then look into the details. Start at the coarsest zoom level of the timeline and zoom in step by step. If you used clapping or a bell as acoustic signals whether or not a take was good, you can spot these in the audio waveform and cut accordingly. To repeat this important advice: Start by roughing the edits out for the entire video, only then look into the details; otherwise, you may discard lots of your work.

Open Education Resources: The use of OER in your course

If  you don’t want to record every single video yourself from scratch, then you might explore the possibility of using OERs for your course. According The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, OERs are defined as follows:
“OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include: full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.”

With a vast amount of high quality material available on the internet, it should be easy to select and use the right material, add a few sentences and assignments, and create a MOOC fit for your purpose in a few minutes. In reality, the material we find is very often not exactly what we need, and we have to take into account also that it may not be available for reuse, or may only be used under certain conditions.

The Ted talk by David Wiley demonstrates the basic concept, need and advantages of sharing education.
VIDEO: Ted talk by David Wiley (15 minutes)
But where do you start to locate OERs? There are many sources of OERs available on the internet. Below is a list of different types of resources you might be interested in.  
Open Textbooks
Open Interactive Simulations
Open Chemistry
-Open Courseware
Open courses from the Open Education Consortium
As most material you will find on the internet will not be published to be available for reuse, you will need to know what you can use, and under which conditions. This is detailed in the Creative Commons licences in the links below. Also, you need to decide under which licence you are going to publish your material.
Creative Commons – What is it?
Creative Commons – Choose your licence
The best way to learn how to work with Open Educational Resources is to work with them:
If you are interested in learning more about how to use and reuse open education resources, you might find it useful to have a look at “Learning to (Re)Use Open Educational Resources”


Other ideas for creating content for your course include simulations. Simulations are software applications that mimic reality in some way, and allow learners to learn by seeing the impact of decisions they make.These can vary widely in their nature. Here are some examples:

  • A mathematical simulation can display a graph that changes when the learner changes a variable in a problem.
  • A scientific simulation might display an animation of an experiment or phenomenon which changes when the learner changes a parameter.
  • Business simulators, often designed as “games”, can show how outcomes change based on the learners’ decisions (usually financial).

In general, simulators are time-consuming to construct and often require programming and mathematical skills. Simulations of social interaction may be based on scenarios and storyboards and can be even more complicated to develop. So for a low-cost approach it may only be possible to use simulations if they are available as Open Educational Resources (or if you can purchase one at a reasonable cost and are not charged on the basis of the number of learners using it).

At this point there does not seem to be anywhere to look online with a comprehensive classified list of free online simulations so you may have to do your own searching to find what you need (if it is available).  We have compiled a short list of a few sites to start your search in our “Additional Materials” at the end of this document.

Student generated content

In MOOCs students are encouraged to participate in discussions and upload assignments as part of their learning. Their contributions can vary from a few words to complete designs, essays, case studies, literature reviews etc. Not only does the creation and discussion of material form part of the students’ learning and engagement, it will also form part of the MOOC.
In the Making MOOCs on a Budget MOOC, we saw some  great examples of valuable contributions by students in e.g. a google hangout with moodle, or the google doc with additional resources  and we also used a tricider assignment to gather sources of OER, which you can view and also contribute to.

Other examples of implementing student generated content

  • Wikis
  • Text with comments in google doc
  • MOOC participants that generate, and review the syllabus
  • Students creating videos about a concept, which allow peers to vote on clarity and quality
  • Student-created animations, where peers select the best one and provide arguments for their choice
  • Use of case studies from practice to generate examples of the application of theory


Use of student generated content in a course raises the question of who is the owner of this content. You will find more information and background  in “Copyright Challenges in a MOOC Environment” published by EDUCAUSE. A relevant paragraph is quoted below:
“Traditionally, students own content they create in courses and throughout their academic careers. MOOC students, however, might not be considered students in the institution’s sense of the word; they do not receive academic credit, do not pay regular tuition (if any), and may not have matriculated with an academic institution’’.
Yet individuals enrolled in MOOCs often submit assignments and participate in chat and discussion sessions. Who owns that content? Does the institution have an interest in protecting MOOC student–generated work? Should it? Students may be unaware of the ownership implications when they submit content to a MOOC. User agreements—standard on every MOOC platform—generally give the provider rights to license and re-distribute user-generated content, often in perpetuity. An example of a standard agreement (wording is basically the same across platforms) illustrates the point:
By submitting or distributing User Postings to the Site, you hereby grant to [provider] a worldwide, non-exclusive, transferrable, assignable, sub-licensable, fully paid-up, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to host, transfer, display, perform, reproduce, modify, distribute, redistribute, relicense and otherwise use, make available, and exploit your User Postings, in whole or in part, in any form and in any media formats and through any media channels (now known or hereafter developed).
In other words, by participating in a MOOC the user agrees to grant the platform provider a sweeping license to do what they want with the user’s content. A useful 2013 document, A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age, emphasizes students’ IP rights in an online learning environment, including MOOCS. It states:
Students also have the right to create and own intellectual property and data associated with their participation in online courses. Online programs should encourage openness and sharing, while working to educate students about the various ways they can protect and license their data and creative work. Any changes in terms of service should be clearly communicated by the provider, and they should never erode the original terms of privacy or the intellectual property rights to which the student agreed.”
Additional material
An interesting Tedtalk where it is explained how Duolingo is used to translate text “Massive Scale Online Collaboration”: