The rise of high-quality video in eLearning projects over the last few years has been phenomenal. Video in eLearning is now nearly as common as images and text. Most eLearning courses I see start with a video introduction, perhaps from the CEO or head of HR, presumably to add a human dimension that will lessen the loneliness of the long-distance learner.

There are other uses of video that are now common in eLearning:

  • Software demonstrations and simulations
  • Example scenarios and conversations
  • Staff interviews and stories
  • Animated explainer concepts

But are these really the best options for video? We’d say no!

Modern video techniques offer so much more

Just as there is a shift toward using Hollywood-style production techniques in mainstream TV, so it is time that we “Hollywoodized” eLearning—but at a fraction of the budget. Video editing and production tools are now relatively cheap, so there is really no excuse for not doing much more with video. A video that’s been brilliantly scripted or that captures a real-life story will engage your learners, but there are also a few learner-engagement tricks that you can easily adopt.

We recently completed a project for a global investments organization. The brief? To bring new life and energy to personal development planning (PDP).  

Our first “aha” moment arrived when we put ourselves in the shoes of a critical, even cynical, learner. “Personal development planning—what’s the point of that?” Which gave rise to the thought: What if there were no personal development? This brought to mind the character George Bailey as played by Jimmy Stewart in that Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Facing financial ruin, George Bailey wishes to never have been born—and is temporarily granted his wish. Accompanied by his guardian angel, he sees how much worse off the world—and those he loves—would be without him.

We quickly drafted an initial script (Figure 1) to see if the client liked the idea as much as we did. We weren’t disappointed. The client suggested adding a devil to the script, and so our thinking moved toward using an angel-and-devil-on-the-shoulder approach to highlight learning gaps and challenge misunderstandings.

Figure 1: This is the original script as proposed to the client. We used video clips within this document.

At the heart of our course lies the story of Owen, a rather jaded employee who discovers that he is much better at some things than he originally thought—insights the angel uses to encourage him to develop his career. As Owen’s confidence grows, the devil’s discouragement falls on deaf ears.

The video contains visual and auditory effects, along with exercises and interactions, so it goes beyond the typical sort of video you see in most eLearning courses. While it is true that many eLearning programs use video and sometimes original drama, these are presented in much the same way as text is—which is to say, rather flatly.

So what did we do?

We took a “Hollywood production” approach to this project. We devised a treatment plan, produced a script, cast the actors, defined the special effects, and wove the story of Owen and his career development options around the core learning concepts. We also devised interactive elements to accompany some of the video clips. As Owen completes his PDP journey, we ask learners to complete certain PDP tasks along with him.

From a conceptual point of view, the video of Owen carries the narrative of the course and drives most of the learning (Figure 2). We devised the video script first, then figured out where everything else might fit. This type of approach—narrative-based learning—is useful in supporting culture change. You can use narrative to challenge the status quo and show how doing things differently can really benefit an organization, and you can do it with humor (carefully—our audience was international, and so we had to rescript the devil’s invitation to the angel to join him for a beer, “A swift one down at the Horns and Halo?”).

Figure 2: The core eLearning content prepares the learner for video examples, using the Owen character

The eLearning development process for interactive video

This was the process we followed:

  1. Planning and writing the script
  2. Integrating special effects and interactive elements
  3. Casting and selecting the actors
  4. Dressing the set and background
  5. Completing the post-production work

Script planning and writing

The trick to using humor in any form of training is to not alienate your target audience. It can be very easy to patronize learners or oversimplify an organization’s challenges. In this project, we focused on “known contradictions”—for example:

  • Everyone finds PDP boring, but knows that “the company” or HR loves it
  • People consider PDP as a tick-box exercise, and so don’t put in the effort needed to get results

If you are at the planning stage for your script, this is a good area to focus on with the client:

  • What does everyone “know” about the process, but still find frustrating?
  • Where are the contradictions?

Using special effects (SFX)

The script needs to include the actor’s words, the flow of the story, some direction for filming, and details of any special effects (SFX). The use of SFX in eLearning video is still relatively rare, so in this project we pushed the boundaries a bit to get it to work.

We used SFX as audio markers to bring the angel and devil characters in and out of scenes (Figure 3). This gave the video a visual and auditory consistency, helping the flow. Using SFX also adds another ingredient for storytelling—allowing you to use flashbacks, for instance.

Figure 3: Special effects from our “angel”

Casting the actors

Just as with any characters you use for examples or scenarios, you need to make your characters as diverse as your target audience. Diversity considerations include gender, race, age, socioeconomic status, and job role.

Props and clothing are also vital for actors. Do you need business attire, or will a casual look do? If you are using computer equipment, be sure to hide logos—unless you are being paid for product placement! Also, use the type of furniture and equipment that your target audience would see in their offices.

Dressing the set and your background

In this project, the actors’ words and the SFX were the most important aspects for the learner to focus on. As there was quite a lot going on in the foreground—actor, angel, devil, and interactive elements on screen—we kept the backdrop a solid white. The last thing you want is your learners’ attention straying to insignificant elements.

Completing the post-production work

With some post-production magic added, we had a video narrative that “looked the part”—contemporary and engaging (Figure 4). This was a perfect fit for the client’s corporate identity. We also added the interactive elements—activities for the learner to practice completing various elements of the PDP. These activities popped up within the video, keeping the learner within the story and focused on the cultural change that was being promoted.

Figure 4: We added interactive elements and contemporary styling in post-production

If you’re interested in learning more about this project, you can check it out here. We’d be happy to talk you through a full demo and answer any questions.

(Editor’s note: Readers may also want to review the articles Stephen Haskin has written for Learning Solutions Magazine on the details of video production and post-production. See a list of his articles here.)