Does the presence of instructors in online videos affect learning?

By Hayley Leonard. Posted

Image credit: Scott Graham

Humans can’t help but respond to the social cues of another human

The widespread closure of educational institutions due to the coronavirus pandemic means that learners are now relying more than ever on online courses and instructional videos, and understanding more about the factors that affect the success of learning from these online sources is important.

While there is an increasing number of online learning platforms available, there are many differences between them in terms of how the content is presented and how learners engage with them. Online courses often include prerecorded videos that aim to engage the viewer, but the success of these videos in the development of knowledge will depend on a number of factors. One factor that was considered in a recent study by Wang and colleagues was whether an instructor was visible on the screen when the content was being presented.

What’s in a face?

There’s a lot of evidence from several decades of research that humans are attracted to faces in our environment. This suggests that having an instructor present in an online video might distract the viewer’s attention away from the content, resulting in less efficient learning. On the other hand, social agency theory suggests that having an instructor visible encourages the learner to approach the situation as they would a face-to-face interaction with another human. This means they try to make sense of the information at a deeper level, which could positively affect learning. This is particularly interesting if we consider the presence of instructors in prerecorded videos, rather than in real-time interactions: the learner is still programmed to respond to the voice, body language, and other social cues of another human, despite it being in the form of a recorded image.

Measuring engagement in prerecorded videos

The study by Wang and colleagues aimed to understand whether the instructor’s presence affected memory of content and transfer of learning, as well as how learners viewed the videos. It also used eye tracking technology to measure where learners were looking during the videos, to help understand how the instructor’s presence affected their attention. An eye tracker is a device attached to a screen that records where people look and how they move their attention between different parts of an image or scene. In this study, it allowed the researchers to test whether the presence of the instructor attracted the learners’ attention and whether this affected their learning of the content presented in the video. Learners watched prerecorded instructional videos on statistics, classified as either easy or difficult, in which the instructor was either present or absent. They were tested on the retention and transfer of their learning after the videos using multiple-choice tests. They also reported how they felt about their learning and about the videos.

Improved learning and satisfaction

The presence of the instructor was generally viewed positively. Learners reported greater satisfaction and interest after the videos where instructors were visible than the ones without an instructor. In terms of learning, the instructor’s presence was most important for the difficult topic: it improved transfer of knowledge as well as learners’ own perceptions of how much they had learnt, and of how easy it was to learn from the video. Interestingly, the eye tracking analyses showed that learners did spend more time looking at the instructor than the materials, but this did not seem to distract them from learning the content. In fact, some learners suggested that the instructors improved their focus, and that the instructor’s gestures helped them understand the content better than in the videos where the instructor was absent. This links back to social agency theory, which suggests that information shared during human interaction is processed at a deep level. It suggests that even a proxy for human interaction, such as a prerecorded instructor in a video, can trigger this response and help learners understand a difficult topic.

Why are these findings important for educators?

This type of study is important to help us work out why some online videos work better than others, and what factors you should consider if you are producing your own videos to support learners. It seems that, rather than being a distraction, a visible instructor can help to engage learners and focus them on the content. Increasing the social nature of online learning may therefore be important and could encourage learners to complete courses and develop their knowledge, in contrast to providing information in a non-social context. Learners have a diverse set of needs and preferences, and so incorporating a wide range of activities into any online video or course is likely to allow the most people to access the content.

Further reading

Wang, J., Antonenko, P., and Dawson, K., 2020. Does visual attention to the instructor in online video affect learning and learner perceptions? An eye-tracking analysis. Computers & Education, 146, Article 103779.


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