TED talks

Many of us have enjoyed watching TED talks, the online videos of scientists, artists, inventors and others talking about their work. But do we actually learn anything from them? That’s the question raised by a new study led by professor Shana K. Carpenter of Iowa State University and published this month in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Carpenter and her colleagues showed study participants one of two short videos of an instructor explaining a scientific concept (in this case, the genetics of the calico cat). In the “fluent” video, the instructor stood upright, maintained eye contact, and spoke fluidly without notes. In the “disfluent” video, the instructor slumped, looked away, and spoke haltingly while referring to notes. After watching one of the videos, participants were asked to predict how much of the content they would later be able to recall, and then were tested on the content.

Participants who watched the fluent video thought they would remember much more information than participants who watched the disfluent video—but actually both groups remembered about the same amount.

[RELATED: Teachers’ Ultimate Guide to Using Videos]

TED talkers are nothing if not fluent. Could it be that the effective presentation of the speakers in TED-style videos fools us into thinking we’re learning more than we are? As someone who watches TED videos often, and who has given a TED talk herself, I’m biased. But I think there are good reasons to believe that these videos can be vehicles for genuine learning. Here, five ways that well-made videos (including MOOCs and other kinds of digital instruction) can help us learn:

• They gratify our preference for visual learning. Effective presentations treat our visual sense as being integral to learning. This elevation of the image—and the eschewal of text-heavy Power Point presentations—comports well with cognitive scientists’ findings that we understand and remember pictures much better than mere words.

• They engage the power of social learning. The robust conversation that videos can inspire, both online and off, recognizes a central principle of adult education: We learn best from other people. In the discussions, debates, and occasional arguments about the content of the talks they see, video-watchers are deepening their own knowledge and understanding.

• They put practitioners in the role of teachers. We take in knowledge most readily, not when it’s presented in the abstract, but when it’s embedded in a rich context of stories and experiences. TED’s speakers are effective teachers because most of the time, they don’t teach; they do.

• They enable self-directed, “just-in-time” learning. Because video viewers choose which talks to watch and when to watch them, they’re able to tailor their education to their own needs. Knowledge is easiest to absorb at the moment when we’re ready to apply it.

• They encourage viewers to build on what they already know. Adults are not blank slates: They bring to learning a lifetime of previously acquired information and experience. Effective video instruction build on top of this knowledge, adding and elaborating without dumbing down.

It’s become fashionable to mock the distinctive style of TED videos; their success makes them a tempting target. But in a world in which we want—and need—to be learning all the time, they’re excellent arrows to have in our quiver.

Read more here.

  • Tim Bulkeley

    In the spirit of joining a “robust conversation” (even if this was not a video 😉

    I can’t see what the second half of this post has to do with the first. The first presented evidence purporting to show that poor presentation skills do not reduce the learning from watching a video, but that good skills increase the amount people think they will/have learned. The second half offers arguments that short videos may be useful learning tools.

    Can you explain more about the connection you see between the two halves?

  • Curious, the abstract for the study doesn’t include a summary about how “actual learning” was measured (nor whether or not it was even measured). Only that participants were “given a text-based transcript of the video to study.” Just wondering if anybody has purchased the actual report and whether or not it describes how the researchers evaluated “actual learning” so as to make the conclusion that instructor fluency in videos don’t have an impact?

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  • Tim Springer

    While the original TED talks were not what one would call “short” @Tim and @Mel both raise important points.
    Are short videos better than long videos? Has media, in all its forms begun to shape our attention span? Anecdotal evidence certainly supports this notion – and a few scientific studies offer preliminary evidence that it may be so.

    The more vexing problem is that raised by Mel – how do we measure “actual learning”? I’m reminded of Einstein’s observation “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” While I too love TED talks and other similar media, it seems that we confuse information with knowledge and mistake awareness for actual learning.

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