An ode to the illustrated transcript

For each course we start with a blank canvass, we don’t have a fixed idea of x articles, y discussions and z videos, rather we attempt to make the learning needs define the mix. When video is best we are lucky in having a fantastic digital media team who have created amazing video content for previous courses.  But we know that each minute of footage is costly to produce.

So how do we decide whether something should be a video or an article?  A particularly troublesome area is the “talking head” the piece to camera without any additional visuals to consider alongside the audio.  Ant and Dec can make this look easy, but not everyone can look chilled as they try to talk succinctly, remember key points and look straight into an expressionless lens.   Yes, autocue may help, as may bullet points, but it’s still difficult to deliver well, and we can easily require multiple takes to get a good, natural and engaging result.  Without preparation it’s easy to fail the “Just a Minute test” (deviation, hesitation and repetition) – resulting in fragmented content that may not foreground the most important points before viewers tune out.

Talking head’s have their place, for example:

  • Where we need to build relationships. Video has a key role in establishing our lead educators as real people with a passion for their subject and a desire to draw learners into their enthusiasm.  Learner comments thanking the subject lead at the end of courses give testimony to their connectedness – they’ve watched the videos, and had regular emails, but the educator may not have even read any of their comments.  (We’ve created the illusion of Educator presence!)
  • Where the subject matter is sensitive or nuanced and a paper based approach would not convey this effectively. We can pick up tone, facial expressions, changes in rate and pitch to draw emphasis to key points, alert us to things to be wary of and absorb examples (stories) that illustrate.

On the surface video can be more appealing in situations where there is some associated visual content to talk though:  a plan, diagram, artefact.  But I’d like to challenge this also.

Let me explain …We know that not everyone will be able to consume video content, learners may have hearing impairments, have bandwidth issues, or maybe even have a computer without sound.  To get around this it’s our norm (oh that it was everbody’s norm) to create a transcript.

On a recent run of Hadrian’s Wall we got into discussion with a few learners who relied on the transcripts, but felt they were missing out by not being able to tie up the text to the images contained in the video.


I sounded them out about whether an illustrated transcript would help, and took the 18 likes as a definitive  “Yes please”. So we set about working through the transcripts for the 45 videos on the course, adding screen grabs and pictures to around 2/3rds of the transcripts.  The learners applauded us, but we were had to gasp at the irony involved in the process:

  1. Plan video
  2. Write script
  3. Reconnaissance location
  4. Arrange for media team and educators to be on site for filming
  5. Set up
  6. Make several takes
  7. Identify additional pictures to illustrate the content
  8. Produce video rough cut
  9. Provide feedback
  10. Produce final cut
  11. Gain signoff from the course team
  12. Produce transcripts
  13. Insert screenshots from the video to make the illustrated transcript

The document we referred to as an “illustrated transcript” was really just an article with pictures in it.  If our goal was to create this in the first place, then the production tasks are *much* simpler and fit on one line:   write article, identify pictures, get feedback, publish.

We need to be confident to make judgments on where video is really good.  There are places where it really is:   I learned how to felt a shed roof via a browse around YouTube, but I’d rather follow a recipe in a book.  The nature of the thing to be learned should inform the choice of medium of communication.  Let’s think about the “learning power” when making these judgments and broaden it out too – it’s not just video vs article, but maybe even – what else can we do to help learners to discover things for themselves?

Foregrounding this latter point not only helps us avoid the passive/transmissive criticism of x-MOOC, but also means that we can harness the strengths of social learning and all that technology can do to make this easy this over time and distance.


Leave a Reply