So, here's the thing about the video in my Coursera course

I’m taking a Coursera course, and the primary content delivery tool being used is video. Talking head video of the instructor switching to voice over PowerPoint lectures with bullet point slides and diagrams.

Now, I wish I could leave my first impressions aside, but can’t (because I’m a bit shallow and judgmental this way and first impressions count), but I am staring at PowerPoint slides primarily composed of bullet points of text (bad) in FREAKIN’ COMIC SANS.  I mean, bullet points of texts are bad enough in terms of adding nothing to my understanding of what is being said, but it’s FREAKIN’ COMIC SANS. I am in a kindergarten class.

Anyway, where was I. Oh yeah. Video.

So, a little technical & pedagogical note about using video as a content delivery method. Web video can be great in that it allows students to interact with the video. Learners can pause, rewind, fast forward and otherwise move through video at their own pace. Going back to review content they may be fuzzy on. As  Zhang, Zhou, Biggs and Nunamaker noted in their 2005 research study Assessing the impact of interactive video on learning effectiveness (pdf) , the interactive nature of web video – this ability to stop, rewind and replay – is one of the prime pedagogical affordances of web video .

Results of the experiment showed that the value of video for learning effectiveness was contingent upon the provision of interactivity. Students in the e-learning environment that provided interactive video achieved significantly better learning performance and a higher level of learner satisfaction than those in other settings

Now, for me, if you are going to make video your primary content delivery platform and take advantage of that pedagogical affordance of video – this ability for learners to manipulate the timeline – then the video should be a true streaming experience. Coursera videos are not.

What does that mean? Well, there are 2 ways you can deliver video on the internet: progressive download and streaming. I won’t get into the technical details of each (you can read for yourself a bit more if you like), but one of the major differences between the two methods of video delivery is how quickly you can move thru the timeline. Progressive download buffers the video, meaning when you move the timeline, you get the hourglass for a few seconds while the video buffers and then restarts. Whereas in streaming video, you get no buffering. You move your cursor on the timeline and the video starts at that point instantaneously.

Imagine this (and I am sure you have experienced it yourself). You are a student and you are trying to find a specific spot on a video, how frustrating is the progressive method? You move the cursor back. Wait (buffer). Wait (buffer). Wait (buffer). The video plays. Whoops, wrong spot. You move the video back a few more seconds. Wait (buffer). Wait (buffer). Wait (buffer). Hmmm. Too far. Move the cursor forward. Wait (buffer). wait (buffer)….you get the picture.

Knowledge is created in instants. When you are on the verge of connecting concepts, these little delays matter. You want to find the spot you need, not give your mind even that extra couple of seconds to wander or worse, get frustrated interacting with technology.

On the plus side for Coursera videos, the videos appear to be short (less than 6 minutes), so shuffling back and forth and buffering to find an exact spot is reduced as there isn’t much of a timeline to slide through. And you do have the option to play at slower or faster speeds – great if you want to review a 5 minute video in 3, or slow down the pace to catch concepts. But, if you are going to make video your pedagogical tool of choice for content delivery, and the primary pedagogical advantage of video is the ability to move thru the timeline and review what you saw, then it is worth it to invest the extra dollars and make the video true streaming video for a seamless user experience where the technology gets out of the way and not in the way.


Clint Lalonde

Just a guy writing some stuff, mostly for me these days on this particular blog. For my EdTech/OpenEd stuff, check out


13 thoughts on “So, here's the thing about the video in my Coursera course

  1. Thanks for the input. Definitely a heads up on e-video learning. I'll need to take your pointers into consideration for my video courses.

    Thanks for clarifying!

  2. You know, with the opening of the doors to the higher education classroom (through Coursera, Udacity and MITx) you'd think that people would adhere to basic principles of design (instructional and graphic). These open courses compete directly with designed website for attention, does anyone really think that Comic Sans is going to cut it? Despite what one may think about it, there is a stigma to using Comic Sans – it is really polarizing for some students (like you and I for two examples) it seems amateurish.

    I've been to a few conferences, and I've never seen any presentation with Comic Sans in real life – if I did I suspect I'd be so distracted that any information transmitted would be lost.

    I'm not sure why these courses haven't used the picture-in-picture method, where a small picture could keep contact with the instructor – so we can see facial clues to what is being spoken. No one's really done that yet.

  3. I experienced similar technical frustrations while viewing their videos, but I agree with Peter that they might have been set up to meet future standards. Also, considering they're inviting participation from students around the world, streaming may not be the best option for those without their own high-speed connection. With a slow connection I'd rather be able to download a video whole to view it smoothly, even if it means waiting a little.

    The lectures for Gamification are decent. They're just a little rough around the edges (clipped audio here and there and some of the interjected multiple choice questions seem trivial), but the professor is an excellent speaker with an approachable character, and can actually keep you listening to his 10-minute+ clips. But he's the exception, not the rule.

    And, fortunately, no comic sans there.

  4. I'm doing the Coursera statistics one course and I also have issues with the video provision. I blogged about it here:

    In my case, I have issues with the pedagogy and learning design, and how the 'planning' of the online versions of the courses seems to consist of 'lets do what we normally do, but video it'.

  5. Interesting. Based on Helen reminding me that the Gamification course was running (Thanks, Helen!), I previewed the course and looked at how Coursera is programmed. I have to say that it looks quite good. There are a few problems. My video image froze a few times while the audio continued. And clicking next in the video player did not check off the video as having been watched. All that on a shiny new HTML5 codebase. And therein lies the problem. I have not tackled the whole HTML5 thing just yet. I almost have CSS3 down, and I am just waiting for IE10 to come out and make my styling life easier. I imagine the Coursera site, judging from the quality, has been "future proofed." That is, it has been programmed to meet future standards so that minimal future re-coding is needed. Video streaming is not part of the HTML5 specification since it is the job of the video that tells the browser how to play it. So until a protocol for streaming video comes out, I do not think we will see streaming on Coursera. It appears that they have also chosen to code their course for Web 3.0, the semantic web. That may also have limited their options for controlling the video. But, like I said, I have not tackled HTML5 yet; I am hypothesizing based on looking at their code.

    1. That could be the reason it isn’t streaming. I am also not as technically adept with HTML 5 to know if the browsers will support streaming video with the current specifications. Thanks for raising that point.

  6. Hello Clint, I had to laugh when I read about the slide with Comic Sans. Reminded me of 1994. It's a pity that the experience with that particular course isn't as good. I wrote about my first experience with Coursera (the course on Gamification which I'm currently doing) here:

    Over the weekend, I'll put some thoughts down on the blog and write about the peer review experience.

    My experience of the video with Gamification is that it's great and I'd love to use this in our own organisation. It's snippets of the lecturer talking, he piques our curiosity by giving us a task (with a twist); and he writes his own slides – I believe he may be using Adobe Presenter (or something similar). There is no Comic Sans in sight.

    Good luck with the rest of the course!

  7. The value proposition that Coursera provides (marketing buzz notwithstanding) rests almost entirely in its platform. The universities provide the courses, the presenters, the “brand” credibility. So it is a little surprising that given the money involved, and the number of people at least sampling these courses, how half-assed so much of this seems. I’ve been surprised by how sloppy some of these online lectures are — if the point is to raise the profile of education to the masses, shouldn’t they shoot for better production?

    Maybe they are operating under the lean start-up proposition of releasing early, track mistakes, iterate constantly. Maybe in a year we’ll be blown away by how awesome the package is and how they are dominating higher education innovation. Maybe…

    1. I think you hit it on the head. Coursera is the broker – the service provider. The courses are provided by the schools, so it makes sense the course experiences are all over the place right now. And considering how quickly some of the institutions have gone from nothing to offering courses on Coursera in less than 6 months (which, when you think about it is unbelievably quick for higher ed), then that could also explain the gaps in quality.

      So much of Coursera (including the build now/get funding/monitize later strategy) feels like classic startup. Actually, being the platform and the broker, Coursera doesn’t have to really care at all about course quality. As long as there are institutions at the door, they’ll be selling the space (which might actually turn out to be their ultimate business model – MOOC LMS service provider)

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