Long reads

Video learning that delivers (without the Hollywood budget)

20 Aug 2015 By Peter Crush

Video has the power to transform your L&D efforts – but first you need to decide how and why you’re doing it

When builders’ merchant Travis Perkins first receives a new product line, a strange ritual takes place in its warehouse. Employees can be seen whipping out their smartphones, before unpacking, handling and assembling the goods. The results are uploaded in a matter of minutes to the company’s private YouTube account, giving every employee near-instant knowledge they can share with customers in stores.

In the 12 months the site has been operational, more than 580 videos have been uploaded. And while learning solutions and services manager Mel Cooley is delighted with the enthusiasm on show, he’s every bit as pleased with the estimated £1 million it’s saved him in product training.

“With 26,000 staff spread over large warehouses, getting people into classrooms is impossible,” says Cooley. “Video – and in this case user-generated video – gets learning to people fast, because clips are short, around two or three minutes each. And because they’re done by fellow colleagues, they’re more engaging.”

Cooley says the advent of video learning has revolutionised the dynamic at Travis Perkins. Previously, around 70 per cent of learning was “pushed” at employees, whereas today 58 per cent is “pulled” from visitors to the learning management site, which at least a quarter of staff log onto once a month.

Such figures will come as little surprise to video learning evangelists. The availability of smartphones and cheap, flexible editing technology has altered the way we think about presenting information in learning environments, while employees’ increasing comfort with generating and sharing their own video content is a further nail in the coffin of the old, didactic learning model.

By 2016, according to Ambient Insight, around 83 per cent of businesses will be using some form of video in their training. “Video creates a level of emotion. It draws people in and produces better concentration,” says Anton Dominique, CMO at the London School of Marketing, which is putting more of its educational content into video by filming its 60-minute lectures and breaking them down into six-minute videos students can watch on their mobile devices.

But as the medium becomes more popular, learning managers need to understand the impact on their internal learning culture. And they will have to confront what is increasingly positioned as a chasm between a ‘professional’ approach and user-generated content.

“Content still has to be compelling,” says Richard Townsend, co-founder of Circus Street, which like other video producers is benefiting from the increasing interest in the medium, but is wary of being edged out by greater reliance on user content. “HR can’t forget what they’re providing learning for – which is uplift in knowledge. You can’t expect simply transferring stuff to video to do this. You need to be clear about the content, and the story.”

Memory and comprehension, Townsend points out, are different things, which means testing to see how knowledge will be applied is an essential part of the video learning process. There is room for both professional and user-generated content, he adds: “What can’t be forgotten is the overall narrative. Video can be just as boring as a face-to-face meeting [if it’s not properly planned].”

Amy Brocklebank, leadership and development partner at B&Q, understands these issues. Like rival Travis Perkins, her company enables staff to upload new product tests and other practical content to its training portal. But she has also launched a video for new employees to learn about the culture of the business, which is produced by a professional supplier. “We wanted to show off our fabulous HQ and our CSR, so we used a professional actor,” she says.

“The key is knowing what you want to use video learning for. We wanted to create a good first impression as much as we wanted joiners to learn about us, so a handmade video wouldn’t have worked. For products, though, those production standards aren’t necessary.”

While videos don’t necessarily need to be Hollywood quality, the consensus is that they shouldn’t rival Martin Scorsese for length either. “We actually have a bandwidth issue across our network,” explains Cooley. “We can’t have anything more than five or six minutes long, but really three minutes is preferable.” And this, he argues, means establishing very clearly what video is intended to be used for.

“For me, video is best suited to instruction, or to create scenarios,” says David Robertson, executive consultant at leadership development consultancy The Forum Corporation. “I would class user-generated content as less about learning, and more for collecting snapshots of viewpoints, or quick snatches of information.”

But Townsend believes learning professionals also need to know at least some of the technology. “Having video embedded in HTML5 (for iPad and iPhone downloads) is preferable,” he says. “More and more people prefer to learn in their own time, so you’ll create the expectation that this is possible.”

Providing scripts, adds Townsend, can cater for an audience that reacts better to text. And you need to consider whether to make your content ‘socialisable’ on platforms such as Facebook or Instagram – many users will expect this, but it will mean losing control of where your content ends up.

For those who don’t have a dedicated learning portal, Robertson advises testing short ‘messages from the CEO’-style films to monitor take-up. Most learning management systems should offer the ability to observe open rates and shares – vital to proving video’s worth – although external cloud-based solutions can perform many of the same functions.

The starting point can be as simple as your own tablet or smartphone, adds Andy Holmes, head of audit and quality improvement at Develop Training. Twelve months ago he began using video – filmed on an iPad – to establish whether clients’ apprentices were proficient in particular skills, such as joining pipes together. “We send it to employers to assess, so that they can get a far better understanding of what their apprentices are like,” he explains. “But now, with the library of video we’re building up, the plan is to start using this as a databank that other apprentices can access.”

Holmes is the first to admit that microphones on tablets aren’t great, and sometimes the picture quality can be improved. But as Robertson says: “If you scale video up to what you need, and that’s appropriate to the job you need it to do, it’s an amazing tool. Low technology can cut it if it’s real and authentic but, while it can be tempting to throw everything into video, you still need the strategy about what it is you want to achieve. Establish this and it’s a great tool.”

“Get wardrobe in here… quick!”

Professionals share their tips for making your videos stand out

1 Practice makes perfect

You might not want your finished video to sound too polished – particularly if you’re aiming for an authentic experience – but there’s no harm holding a brief rehearsal so people can consider what they want to say and overcome any immediate nerves or reticence.

2 Keep the visual focus

A clean, clear set will make sure you don’t distract the viewer. “Avoid what’s called the ‘moiré effect’ where striped patterns on things like shirts and blinds create disruptions on video,” says Callum Houghton, digital content producer at Video Arts.

3 Use three-point lighting

A key light, a fill light and a back light form the ‘three point’ lighting system that will give your subject warmth, eliminate shadows and bring people further into the foreground. Professional lighting will do the job best, but even a few lamps pointed in the right direction will help.

4 Frame your scene

Too much space around your subject will look awkward and unprofessional. “Creatively, you might want to have someone to one side,” says Houghton. “Particularly in an interview, where having someone off-centre talking towards the unused space can be effective.”

5 Be heard

Most mobile phones come with an omnidirectional microphone, which tends to pick up a lot of background noise. One of the ways to get around this is to use a directional mic. You could also opt for a small lapel mic, with prices starting from around £10.

6 Be authentic

Encourage the people you’re shooting to speak in a way that’s comfortable to them – and don’t be tempted to edit out their quirks or asides if it adds to the video’s authenticity. The subjects should be able to recognise themselves in the final edit.

7 Keep editing professional

“If your company wouldn’t use a ripple dissolve or honeycomb transition in PowerPoint, don’t use one in your film,” says Houghton. “Use a straight cut between shots in the same scene, or a fade-to-black to show either the passing of time or at the end of a video.”

8 Think about the output

Don’t aim for something that just looks good in the edit suite – how long your film is, and the way it’s presented, should be determined by how you expect people to use it. And if you anticipate your video going viral, keep it short and sharp.

Why e-learning works

98% of businesses with a digital learning strategy expect it to incorporate video by 2016

74% of US employees are now using mobile devices for e-learning, while video learning can reduce overall time spent training by 45%

The Open University says e-learning reduces carbon emissions per course by 90%

Market leader Lynda.com, recently acquired by LinkedIn, has seen the number of tutorial videos it hosts rise to 267,000

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