Friday, January 28, 2011

Brevity is the Soul of Confer

"Be sincere, be brief, be seated." - Franklin D. Roosevelt's advice on public speaking.

We've said it here before: it's different online. Students don't come to the online classroom with the same expectations, instructors don't behave the same way online as in the traditional classroom, and the online classroom itself presents an environment that encourages some types of behavior while discouraging others. One thing the online classroom does not encourage is long, inactive lecturing. In fact, the best Confer sessions tend to be the ones that end quickly.

I was reminded of that when I read a Tim Sanders' piece about the power of a short talk. He used the example of TED Talks, which were designed with an 18-minute keynote time limit that is enforced with an active moderator and a public countdown timer. Richard Saul Wurman, who co-founded TED, was asked in an interview why he decided on 18 minutes. His answer: that's the time it usually takes for him to get bored when he's listening to someone.

There are several reasons why we should try to keep our Confer lectures short, even if this means that we have to provide more of them than we would face-to-face sessions. For one thing, it takes students longer to read and understand online content, so we can't flood the screen with print the same way we can deliver handouts to students in a classroom. (We can still deliver these handouts online, of course, but we should allow students to process them offline.) In the age - and medium - of YouTube, three minutes is ideal and five minutes is eternal. So an archived lecture that lasts for 20 minutes and requires students to watch it in its entirety is ... optimistic. Bandwidth is one concern, since nobody likes to wait for content to download, but the real issue is user expectations and behavior in this medium. Since YouTube and other online media have created the expectation that information can be packaged in condensed "chunks" for short viewing, online instructors may find it helpful to condense their own deliveries into shorter, more dynamic "clip-link" packages that allow students to access the information in parses and from multiple paths.

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