I have a policy: Be honest. My policy gets me in trouble a lot.

I was working with a new instructor who was independently creating his first online course. He was acting as both subject matter expert and course developer.

“You want my honest opinion?” I asked for the second time.

“Yes. Feel free to crush my hopes and dreams.”

I did.

Since having this discussion, I’ve delved further into screencasts. In developer training, screencasts are the meat of our courses. I watched many—some that we produced and some produced by others. I quickly realized that there were eight common problems found in many, many of the screencasts that I watched.

So here we go: Here are eight reasons I hate your screencasts, and some ideas for fixing them.

1. Your instructor lives in a box

Figure 1: This instructor is teaching from the default box. Aside from seeing her wallpaper, what does this add to the screencast?

I know. I know. This is what the recording software does, right? The instructor in Figure 1 has to live in a little box in the corner of the screen. Down in the corner, completely separate from the content in a tiny box, in a completely different environment. The problem is that it looks like the instructor: A) taught the class while having a passport photo taken; B) is doing sign language interpretation; or C) lives in a most-wanted poster.

You have to ask yourself: Does seeing the instructor add anything? If not, take that tiny box out entirely. The screencast with voice-over can stand on its own. If seeing the instructor does add to the screencast, try something like Figure 2.

Figure 2: This instructor is now integrated with the screencast, able to point out various aspects of the interface. He’s handsome, too.

With the instructor integrated into the content, you can do several interesting things. For example, the instructor’s hand gestures can point to different on-screen items (like the weather forecaster on TV). You can strategically position the instructor on screen to explain different items related to the content. You can make the instructor very large or very small. You can be creative and actually have the instructor be part of the lesson—if you break the instructor out of the box.

2. Your screencast is too long

Unless you’re getting paid by the minute, your screencast probably needs to be shorter. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Wow—that screencast was great, but I wish it were longer!” As certain as I am that you have many wonderful things to teach, people learn best in short bursts. Dr. Philip Guo, a computer science professor, found in research he was completing for edX that, on average, people watched three minutes of a 12-minute video. Dr. Guo’s advice is the same as mine: Work in small chunks. If your video screencast is eight minutes long, do you think it may need to be two screencasts?

Keep in mind how often the “formal” training you might produce crosses over into the performance support world. When going back to review a specific concept, learners shouldn’t have to scrub through a bunch of video to find what they are looking for.

3. You’re boring

Nobody likes boring. Even if the information relayed in the screencast is boring, the instructor doesn’t have to be. Sometimes boring is just a matter of tone of voice and inflection. For some reason, online instructors think because their topic is serious—or even just work-related—that they have to be formal and speak in a monotone. This type of delivery immediately turns people off and makes them less likely to pay attention to your course content.

Even if a topic is boring, an energized delivery can help ensure that learners pay attention. Be aware of your pitch, tone, volume, and rate. Varying these factors in vocal delivery will lead to a less boring, more energetic result.

Pitch refers to how high or low the speaker’s voice is. Speech without pitch variance sounds monotonous.

Tone refers to emotion. Does the speaker sound energetic, or bored and flat? What are the vocals communicating aside from the words themselves? Often, a tone that sounds slightly exaggerated to the speaker, when included in online learning, will sound “normal” to the learner. Exaggerating tone a bit (don’t overdo it!) may take you out of your vocal comfort zone, but it will lead to a much less monotonous experience for the listener.

Minor variations in rate (the speed at which you talk) and volume will also help speakers be less boring. Be careful with volume, as you don’t want to be so loud as to distort the vocals.

4. There’s no context

Many screencasts that I’ve seen seem to start in the middle. Because there’s a screen, the natural thing to do is to start moving the mouse and clicking. However, the best thing you can do is set a context for what is coming next. Context can be communicated in a sentence or two:

“Now you’ve completed the quiz interaction in your course. But let’s say you want to edit or change the answers available. I’m going to show you how to do that now.”

I actually like to set context both visually and with voice-over. We always use a bumper slide at the beginning of the screencast that sets context in addition to the voice-over (Figure 3). We keep this slide on screen for about five seconds as the instructor is setting context. The idea is simply to orient the viewer to what’s about to happen in the lesson.

Figure 3: This slide helps set context for the content about to come

Keep in mind that while you may design a course for a learner to consume sequentially, often times the course may be used as a performance support instrument—meaning the learner won’t have the benefit of the previous lesson for context.

5. It’s one continuous shot

Broadcast television changes the shot about once every five seconds. A 22-minute network sitcom may be composed of 300 separate shots or more. They do this because they know that varying camera angles, using B-roll video, and using establishing shots all increase engagement and help expose the narrative.

Online learning, however, seems to have a standard of a single shot per screencast sequence. It might be useful for producers to think of screencasts more like a television show. While the five-seconds-per-shot standard is probably not achievable for most online learning, we can still vary screencasts to include:

  • Still slides. That doesn’t mean use the PowerPoint defaults, but a slide that illustrates the point being made by the speaker (Figure 4).

Figure 4: An example of a still slide that can be part of a screencast. The voice-over is discussing computer memory, and it shows the instructor.

  • Whiteboard. Using whiteboard software such as VideoScribe, you can create simulated whiteboard video. Good for a change of pace in a screencast.
  • Instructor head shot. If the instructor is talking, why not show him or her on screen? You can edit short videos of the instructor speaking into your screencasts. I am a big fan of having the instructor appear on screen to help establish that all-important teacher-student relationship.
  • Instructor in screencast. Show the instructor in front of the screencast. This is a great opportunity to create engagement as the instructor is integrated into the screencast itself.

There are dozens of additional possibilities here, including equipment shots, animations, and more. Just remember: A screencast shouldn’t be a continuous, unadorned, unchanging shot of the screen.

6. Your mouse is in perpetual motion

This one is easy: If there is no reason for the mouse to be moving, don’t move it. It’s distracting for the learner to follow your mouse pointer around the screen when there is no reason for it to be moving in the first place. If you have a recording in which an instructor continuously moves the mouse around the screen, consider editing the screencast so that the mouse appears still.

7. Uhhh… Ummm… Ahhh…

You’ve probably been hearing about filler words since your high school speech class. In professional-quality online learning, it is not OK to have filler words in the final production. Re-record, or edit them out. Filler words can make your speaker sound lacking in confidence. They are also simply annoying for the listener. 

This is an area where it’s so easy to raise the bar on the quality of online learning. In many organizations, the use of fillers is considered acceptable—I challenge you to up the level of quality and professionalism by eliminating these fillers.

8. I don’t know who you are anymore!

I’ve never been a fan of using professional voice-overs in online learning. Worse yet, I’ve seen a couple of online learning productions with a mechanized computer voice. Online learning sounds most authentic when the subject matter expert, instructor, or even the course producer is the “voice” of the course.

One of the things that is lost when learning goes online is the relationship between student and instructor. That’s why we take every opportunity to show an on-screen instructor through headshots, photographs, and voice. You’re missing an opportunity to engage students if you cast a voice actor to complete the voice-over in your courses.

If you include screencasts in your courses, integrating a few of these suggestions will allow you to improve the quality of your screencasts and make them more engaging.

And, as a bonus, I won’t hate your screencast anymore.


Guo, Philip. “Optimal Video Length for Student Engagement.” edX Blog. 13 November 2013.