The CEO of Strayer Education, Karl McDonnell, admits that some of Strayer University’s online courses were boring and monotonous—essentially narration over slides bearing clip-art. So the for-profit is expanding an effort to apply techniques from Hollywood storytelling to its course materials.
The move is part of a trend—led by for-profit providers but done by some traditional colleges as well—to glitz up course materials, in some cases bringing in celebrity guests. This new approach juxtaposes video models created by most professors today, adding a production crew, producers, lights and angles to video instruction.
At Strayer, officials set up Strayer Studios in 2015, an in-house production facility with the goal of making what it calls “binge-worthy” teaching materials. McDonnell says the studio has since created or updated about 10 courses with the help of the studio, which employs a mix of filmmakers, producers, editors and cinematographers that work with instructional designers and faculty.
For one writing course, Strayer Studios produced a series of videos starring Kim Coles, an actress and comedian best known for her role on the TV series Living Single. Some of the footage is shot at a comedy club where she sometimes performs, and she shares her experience as a writer, and her tips on autobiographical writing.
When they invited her to be part of the course, Coles was already teaching an online course on her own, using the platform Teachable, which lets anyone offer courses. “It has to do with not waiting around for a new sitcom,” she says on why she got into teaching. “It’s something I do when I’m sitting around waiting for another audition.”
Coles has heard that some of the students know her only from her acting have expressed surprise that she writes. “They get delighted that I’m there to teach, and then they can think, ‘Oh she has more to give than just being a celebrity,’” she says.
Coles is not the teacher of record for the course—many different instructors at Strayer guide students through the materials. “I pop in to teach elements,” Coles says.
And she points out that she’s there to share her ideas, not just to lend star power. “I’m hoping that we don’t see a trend of just using a name to sell the content,” she says. “What a tragedy it would be to have a pretty face and name just teaching some content they’re not connected to.” She praises the college’s approach as “classy,” and says the footage looked so good that she might add it to her “sizzle reel.”
McDonnell compared the Strayer Studios approach to creating mini-documentaries that illustrate concepts from courses. “We would never have a celebrity for the sake of having a celebrity,” he says. “That would lack the authenticity of what we’re trying to do.”
A few years ago, the leader of edX suggested bringing in a well-known actorto teach a course as an experiment to see whether students do better with someone like, say, Matt Damon, as a standin for the professor. The experiment never took place, though.
Does McDonnell worry that attempting to model teaching materials on popular entertainment will lead to a dumbing-down of the content?
“Would you say that Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary dumbs down the civil war?” he replied. “You can have interesting stories, and you can have interesting learning.”
He says the proof of the approach is in the numbers. Tens of thousands of students have consumed the materials, and they’re watching the videos at much higher rates than before. A report released this week by Strayer shows that students in courses that used the materials were 6 percent more likely to complete coursework and 5 percent more likely to persist to the next quarter than students who took the courses before the redesigns.
So even though the courses aided by the studio end up costing around $100,000 to $200,000 to create, says McDonnell, the effort pays for itself because “even very small changes in retention offset that cost.”
When asked why Strayer didn’t just license videos from publishers rather than building its own, McDonnell says he “couldn’t find anything at a production value that satisfied us.”
The university considers its studio a success and plans to expand it.
McDonnell says that will go forward despite changes at the company—last week Strayer announced plans to merge with Capella Education Co., another large for-profit college in a $2-billion deal. “Having spoken with Capella, it may have some applicability on their side,” says McDonnell.
The key is Strayer’s top-down approach, requiring consistent adoption of the materials across many sections of a course. That’s different than the way traditional nonprofit colleges administer their teaching, letting each faculty member extensive input on course design.
And Strayer is not alone in turning to production teams for course materials. Udacity, for instance, has built courses in which presenters deliver information rather than experts in the subject.
One tradeoff is that because the videos are more expensive to produce, updating them might come at a higher cost as well.
Some nonprofit colleges that produce MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, have experimented with different production methods. Researchers at MIT, for instance, did an analysis of various online courses in 2013, and one finding suggested “videos that intersperse an instructor’s talking head with PowerPoint slides are more engaging than showing only slides.” In other words, it might help to show someone’s face during online videos, whether they’re a celebrity or not.
Some of the most popular teaching videos online are the most low-fi. A few videos on Khan Academy, for instance, have attracted millions of views, even though they are essentially voiceovers of Sal Khan explaining concepts while he draws on a screen or annotates images.
In an interview last year, Khan described his style as “enjoying the material” and letting that show as he talked in his videos. “I genuinely am enjoying that—my sense of wonder is engaged,” he said. “I’ll giggle every now and then because I make a mistake, which I think students say, “OK, it’s OK to make mistakes, and it’s OK to giggle while doing mathematics, and it seems like a small thing. But when was the last time you giggled, you know, while doing a math problem?”