A few years ago, while trying to come up with a way to make my assignments more relevant to my students’ lives and to ignite passion in their work, a flurry of “explainer videos” started popping up on YouTube.
Explainer videos are short and catchy combinations of moving images, audio, and music. They are typically packed full of information about some specific idea or topic and may even include an on-screen actor or reporter who walks the viewer through the story.
Examples of good explainer videos can be found on a host of websites. I particularly like the Vox explainer video entitled The State of Gun Violence in the US, Explained in 18 Charts. I also like the KQED ‘Above the Noise’ explainer video entitled Why Do Our Brains Love Fake News? Another very good explainer video describes TEACH, KQED’s new online professional learning platform for educators.
While watching these videos, I realized what I was looking for . . . an opportunity for my students to produce some explainer videos of their own.
The Explainer Video Assignment
I began by calling upon my broadcast journalism students to create explainer videos in which each student described him or herself—a kind of biography project.
This allowed them to concentrate on a topic that they were already familiar with. It also allowed them to complete a project in a shorter amount of time than usual, with the finished product serving as a way of letting the students get to better know one another at the start of the year.
To create their explainer videos, my students used Apple’s Keynote, a free presentation software for Mac and iOS and an easy-to-use alternative to Microsoft Powerpoint.
One great feature of Apple’s Keynote is that it can easily record an audio track to play over the presentation itself–the presenter can essentially place a “live recording” over the video.
The first step of the assignment required my students to watch examples of explainer videos found online. I wanted them to be able to identify and analyze the elements and techniques they would need to use in their own videos—how to communicate ideas clearly; the types of images, statistics, and graphic elements necessary to tell a story; and how to organize the information so it makes sense to an audience.
Next, we watched examples of animations created with Keynote. I also provided the class with a copy of the free multi-touch book, Design Secrets Revealed, so that it might help them better understand how to make a presentation visually appealing and easier for an audience to comprehend.
Then I gave a 30-minute tutorial on how to use Keynote to create animation. The simplicity and options of Keynote excited my students and inspired them to think about how they could creatively tell their stories.
For homework, the students were asked to write scripts for their own voiceover tracks, collect images and statistics, and design their animation. The next day, we spent about two hours completing the videos.
Since this was their first time using Keynote’s animation elements, and since the turnaround time was quite short, the videos were not as polished as we might have liked. However, the exercise served as a great way for students to become familiar with the tool, to learn to tell a story with graphics and voiceover and to become better-versed in elements of design.
See below for an example of one of my student’s explainer videos.
Tips for Creating Explainer Videos
My students were asked to complete their projects in only four hours’ time, and over the course of only two days. Here are my suggestions to make your assignment better:
- Start small. Make this an ‘introductory’ project with a limit of 3-5 slides. Have students focus on ONE particular aspect of a topic to animate. Learn from your mistakes so that the next assignment can be longer and more complicated.
- Give your class enough time to debrief and critique the projects in class. Although students posted their projects on our social media group so that everyone could see them before returning to school, our time constraints meant that we didn’t have time to adequately debrief in class and learn from each other.
- Writing is the foundation of every multimedia project. These videos will require focus statements (the narrow and specific question video will answer), editorial decisions (what information to include), as well as writing and performing a scripted voice-over track will provide the framework for the graphics and animation. Spend time writing and revising the script so that it’s clear and makes sense before you work on the visuals and animations.
- Content is king. Make sure students have their information right, and can craft a clear story that explains–not just describes–a given topic. Ask them to consider and answer questions such as, “Why is this way the best way?” or “What happens if you don’t…?” or “Why should this matter to anyone?”
Although my background is in journalism and film production, I found that the KQED Teach courses “Making Infographics” and “Designing Presentations” helped clarify design and layout skills I needed to develop with my students.
Why Assign Explainer Videos
Explainer videos are a great way for teachers to check for understanding while also allowing students to have an impact on an audience beyond the classroom.
Explainer videos also teach students important media literacy and design skills that they might need in the “real world” someday.
More than anything else, my students had great fun playing around with the explainer video style.