Against Dead Air in Education(al Multimedia)

RCA Indian Head TV Test Pattern
This test pattern used to show when TV programming had ended for the day. It's a visual representation of "dead air".

In my first career, I was an AVID video editor and worked in Hollywood editing television shows for Paramount TV, MTV, E Entertainment, Lifetime, and others. A lot of the job of a video editor is to watch raw footage of people talking and doing things, cutting out the boring bits, leaving only the most interesting, entertaining, and relevant parts of what they say. Video editors gain an acute appreciation of how much time we waste saying “um” and “uh”, going off on unrelated tangents, and thinking while we talk without saying very much.

The same way nice clothes flatter your body, good chefs bring out the best flavors in their ingredients, and sculptors bring a finished form out of a shapeless stone, a good video editor sorts through the moments of real life, cutting away the “dead air” time and creating a “concentrated awesome” experience for the viewer. The result is snappier, easier to understand, more interesting, more exciting, more effective. It’s like real life, only better.

“Dead Air” is a Sin in Broadcasting

Broadcasting a show with no talking or action, called dead air, is the very worst thing that can happen in radio or television. For some reason though, we have a surprisingly high tolerance for it in education. Whereas a radio DJ or TV producer would surely be fired for airing nothing, an instructor can take a languid, leisurely route to get to the point without much fear of reprisal. The school context has let teachers treat students’ time with less respect than do broadcasters — for them, time means advertising money and dead air means money burning. This has led to media producers innovating on how to pack more valuable content into every moment, and video editors are the main magicians in this process.

We’ve come to expect “dead air” in education

We have been conditioned by our schooling to think of education happening over large blocks of time — 45 minutes, 60, 90 even — while forgetting that this model works against our natural attention span. Data shows that the optimal length of a YouTube video maxes out at around 3-4 minutes, corresponding to the human attention span. My 4:5 rule encourages teachers to pack 4 pieces of information into a 5 minute video, tightly focused on a specific topic.

The 4:5 Rule -- 4 pieces of information in 5 minutes, max

As a classroom teacher, we were trained in the practice of chunking, or breaking down complex tasks into simplified, single-sitting lessons that students could achieve in a few minutes at a time. These chunks would scaffold up into more complex desired learning outcomes, but the practice of chunking them makes them more accessible for diverse learners. Switching between multiple short chunks over the course of a long classroom block (ours were 90 minutes) supports students’ focus and behavior by making the class period feel punchy and brisk. It’s much more work to plan instruction this way, but the benefit to your classroom environment is clearly worth the effort.

As teachers move online, we need to offer educational multimedia experiences that students can consume in short, focused bursts from wherever we are. People turn to YouTube when they need to see a quick, visual answer to a specific question they have. What works in YouTube videos is the same thing that works when your students just want the answer to a focused question in their academic lives.

As you create instructional multimedia, you need to think of each video as the answer to a specific question, not a broad speech about everything you can pack into 90 minutes. You can curate these chunks into larger units that produce the kinds of learning outcomes you want to see for students, but each “session” they engage in should be short, clear, punchy, and focused.

Webinar Hell: Dead Air Persists

Still, here we are, deep into the web revolution, and it’s still regrettably common to post recordings of hour-long webinars, where much of the running time is taken up with making sure everyone’s audio is working, a lengthy introduction from the emcee before the instructor starts talking, ums and ahs, questions from the audience, etc. Institutional lecture capture software publishes university professors’ hourlong lectures straight to the web, with no editing, no curation, no care for creating an efficient experience for students who will consume this content.


Edit, People, Edit!

Tim Gunn says "Edit"

– Tim Gunn

Being an editor is a habit of mind. It’s a cultivated impatience with any “filler” that takes away from what’s valuable in your message. It’s compassion for the consumer of the information, the end user who wants to understand your ideas but has to manage their time effectively to keep their life in balance. It’s a conscious process of asking oneself “what am I really trying to communicate here?” and “am I conveying my message in the most effective way possible?” It’s an act of humility, accepting the reality that our first try at phrasing our thoughts is not always our best, and that some of what we say isn’t worth our students’ time. It’s an exercise in patience, with ourselves (growing as communicators) and our audience (striving to decipher our ideas). It always feel like more work than should be necessary, but is usually received with palpable gratitude by learners who can see the respect and professionalism baked into the finished product.

Editing is often ignored when people think about the creative process — it’s often treated as an optional step that we’ll do when there’s time. (There never is). We creators forgive ourselves too quickly for the imperfections in our own presentations, but our consumers grow quickly tired of paying attention when their attention is not rewarded. When I think of “student-centered teaching” or “user-centered design“, they both challenge us to ignore how tired and overworked we feel and do what it takes to create a first-class experience for our users.

The next time you offer a piece of educational multimedia to your learners, please challenge yourself to cut away every moment that doesn’t advance the main idea. Have the respect for your own message (and those who consume it) to go to extraordinary lengths to make it easy and enjoyable to consume. Your learners will thank you for it.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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