A New Study from MIT Shows Exactly How You Act When Taking an Online Class

There have been many behavioral studies performed on what an in-class experience is like, ranging from students' attention spans to the body language a professor uses and how effective it is. They've all been useful tools in ascertaining what traditional classrooms need to do to improve themselves, and it's made for a fairly streamlined process. One area that's been left relatively untouched is online education, which seems pretty hard to measure in any aspect. After all, how can you perform studies when you can possibly see all the subjects at once? A new study from MIT has turned that on its head, using data from learners' viewing habits to form an interesting picture. Here's what it shows about online education.

Videos, Videos, Videos: Are They Actually Any Good?

The main crux of any online course, whether it's college-related or a MOOC, is the use of videos. Students need a way to see and hear the professor teaching the course, and watching previously uploaded videos is the way to go.

But how effective are these videos? Are they actually a good way for students to be taking in class information?

MOOCs and other online courses have a notoriously low completion rate, with some going as low as the single digits. Part of that is the lack of accountability/difficulty with self-motivation, with online students needing to dig down really deep inside themselves and push to get the work done. In traditional classrooms, that motivation and accountability are there: raise your hand and ask the professor a question, or turn to the classmate beside you. It's easy to get the help you need and in real time, but that's not always the case with online courses.

In the MIT study, researchers found the following:

Length of video: Shorter videos kept students' attention more efficiently, with learners tending to tune out after the six-minute mark.

Style of teaching: How the professor appears in the video makes a big difference in terms of attention span, with students favoring an informal style (e.g. the prof sitting down at his or her desk) over a formal style (e.g. at a podium).

Data: If the class information is presented through lively visuals, like GIFs, animations or other eye-catching designs, it's a more efficient way of teaching than by simply presenting PowerPoint slides.

Rate of speech: Students are driven crazy if the professor speaks really slowly and drags the lecture on and on, and talking more quickly has a better effect. The magic number in the MIT study seems to be 254 words per minute, which indicates professors as being "most engaging".

Breaks: Lectures contain a lot of complex information, so how you deliver it matters. This goes for everything in life, not just lectures, but inserting pauses for your listeners to absorb the information is always a good idea.

Tailored approach: Designing lecture videos the way TV shows are made (i.e. in 22- or 48 minute episodes) is one of the worst ways you can teach a class. Instead, making videos that are specifically crafted for each class — as opposed to using one long video and breaking it down — is a smarter option.

What Viewing Behavior Teaches Us

MIT used data from LectureScape, a self-described "YouTube for MOOCS", to ascertain how viewing behavior and interaction peaks can help contribute to reinventing the way videos are made in classrooms. The goal is to always make videos that grab the student's attention, and using intuitive, dynamic and effective means is the way to go.

A timeline that displays the most watched segments (as indicated by previous viewers) has been shown to be handy for students, as has an interactive transcript where students can enter in keywords to go exactly where they're intending to. It helps eliminate the noise in videos and let learners zero in on just the information they want, and without burdening them with unnecessary details.

Another neat device that really caught on with students is to make word clouds and summaries, both of individual sections and the entire lecture, so they can make digital notes as they go along. Being able to retain the information on that page in real time is an important lesson MOOC designers can take from their traditional classroom counterparts.

Lastly, if you can enable content from popular slides to be present on the next slide students click onto, you'll be one step closer to retaining their attention. Popular slides are the ones that are clicked on most often, and they also tend to be the ones students will want to check out again later on.

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