What Makes an Effective Science Video?

The ubiquity of digital technology has revolutionized the ways in which we communicate and consume scientific content. Perhaps most importantly, the Internet has enabled easier and more democratic access to knowledge that was once available only though exclusive and often costly academic programs. Answers to some of the most complex questions in science are now available at the click of a mouse, through web videos created by a diverse and highly popular set of so-called "science explainer" outlets, which have proliferated in recent years.  Other projects, such as Salman Khan's Khan Academy have assembled digital libraries that empower people all over the world to engage with vast collections of educational content through free and endlessly-replayable instructional videos. The Academy has already had a substantial impact on formal education, as its library of videos, which have been translated into 24 different languages, is accessed by roughly six million unique students around the globe each month (Noer, 2012).

As valuable and groundbreaking as this type of resource is, however, critics assert that a flaw of "content explainer" videos is that they essentially repackage traditional education and deliver it in a new way. Prensky (2011) argues that in addition to disseminating traditional lecture-based knowledge, digital technologies have the potential to provide new ways of reaching learners through games and multi-media tools that foster experiential education. Such resources may be particularly useful to students who have struggled in traditional educational contexts, as these tools may allow them to approach the same content in novel ways (Prensky, 2011).

In addition to engaging directly with students, digital media has the potential to impact formal science education through targeted professional development resources for educators. Unlike traditional professional development strategies, which typically require substantial investments of time and financial support, digital tools can provide enduring resources that reach teachers with information tailored to the specific needs of their practices. Recognizing this opportunity, SSEC's Curriculum and Communications team has been exploring potential applications for digital media tools in our larger mission to improve and support the teaching of science in the nation's schools.

As part of this exploration, our team attended a ScienceOnlineDC event focused on science communication through online videos. The event was hosted by the ACS Reactions team, who shared advice about science video production and provided an inside look at their process. Several other outlets also showed videos and discussed the aims and accomplishments of their content. The event was a lot of fun, and our team brought home some great ideas about the strengths of online videos in science education, and perhaps more importantly, how this content is often received by the public. As a combination of art and education, there's no "one size fits all" approach for guaranteed success in science video, but we've collected some of our unit's takeaways on what works, what doesn't, and what we feel our priorities should be in this field.

So what makes an effective science video?

  • Short duration - One piece of advice shared by nearly all of the ScienceOnlineDC units was that brevity is essential to both attracting and retaining an audience. Videos between 2-5 minutes in length seem to be a staple of the field.
  • Narrow scope - Short videos typically have space for only a few content points, with the scope narrowing further as the complexity of the subject matter increases.
  • Evergreen subject matter - As a few decades in the internet age have taught us, everything posted lasts forever and (due to production time) it's nearly impossible to stay current. The best solution is to eschew the trends of the moment and instead cover topics with long-term relevance and broad appeal.   
  • Titles phrased as questions - Possibly an unexpected consequence of search engines pervading our everyday lives, videos with titles phrased as questions (e.g. What makes an effective science video?") have been found to attract greater interest and viewership.

What makes an ineffective science video?

  • Distracting background music - Music is powerful, and can either powerfully enhance or powerfully detract from the viewing experience. In the context of informational videos, music often makes the content feel ancillary, and can skew reception based on matters of taste or atmosphere.
  • Weak aesthetics - As with all visual arts, aesthetic appeal is central to the success of science videos. Unappealing visuals can repel viewers from even the most fascinating content; however, even sleek, highly produced visuals rarely stand on their own. Hand-drawn or intentionally-amateurish visuals are a popular trend in science video, as they maintain interest and relatability and avoid boring audiences by feeling overly formal.    
  • Misrepresented content - A potential weakness of science video as an educational tool is its penchant to inadvertently misrepresent content, thereby creating lasting misconceptions among viewers. Hastily drawn diagrams may be useful for providing background visuals for a content point, but without careful scrutiny, inaccurate or ambiguous material can undermine the ultimate goal of the video.

Separating the wheat from the chaff: 

  • Viewership doesn't necessarily imply appreciation or effective conveyance of message - While "number of views" is a commonly used metric for judging the popularity of web videos, click counts are an imperfect measure of success. These numbers can accurately reflect the level of attention a video has garnered from global audiences, but they say little about viewers' reception of the video. The number of subscribers to a particular outlet's channel can be a more accurate measure of viewer appreciation and interest.

Important topics are often overlooked by the viewing public - As evidenced by the incredible popularity of cat videos in recent years, the most widespread Internet content is heavily influenced by the whims of minds seeking escape, distraction and procrastination. This point was reflected by the ACS Reactions team's observation that their video, "Why do dogs smell each other's butts?" is their highest viewed content to date, with a wide margin over much more serious, and arguably important topics. Striking a balance between popularity and substance is necessary for all informational media, but is likely particularly crucial (and difficult to achieve) for effective science education videos.

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