How I am innovating online learning

How I am innovating online learning

by Christian Vaccaro

I created instructional technologies similar to those found in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) at no additional cost to the university and required no additional specialized support beyond that of the course instructor.

MOOCs and The Value and Limits of Online Learning

There has been a great deal of discussion in higher education circles about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – by companies such as Coursera, Udacity, and EdX – that offer college level courses taught by world-renown scholars for free to anyone in the world with an internet connection.

To learn more about MOOCs , I audited a course on Network Analysis in 2014 by Stanford Professor of Economics, Matthew O. Jackson. By taking the course, I learned a good deal of valuable information on Network Analysis, but the more importantly I learned about the mechanics of MOOCs. I noted that they have value but, for all their hype, limitations exist for their proliferation beyond elite universities.

One of the values of MOOC design is that it allows for an expert to deliver their knowledge about the subject matter with a consistent voice and in a logical order. This is mostly accomplished by the MOOC company (supplemented by the host university) assisting the expert faculty to record, edit, and produce their classroom lectures. This has the effect that the professor is the focal point of the course – their voice, their logic, their examples, their knowledge, their everything shines through in a very meaningful way.

Yet, this is a very costly endeavor for universities, as creating a MOOC – with the assistance of professional editors, videographers, and even production teams – can run upwards of $100,000. Importantly, they are not yet (and may never be) monetized beyond advertisement and good will from the host university. Elite universities with large endowments (like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT) can afford to provide these services without consideration of finances, student outcomes, and student-faculty engagement. Simply put, MOOCs work for these institutions because the cost is negligible for large and elite universities considering the resources they already have. Similarly, the thousands of students taking (and dropping) these courses will not be given “real” credit for them anyway and, thus, are not viewed as part of the university outcomes. Finally, elite faculty members connecting to the world in this way are viewed positively because they – and their lessons – have been unavailable to the general public in ways that are not true for non-elite and public universities.

It is very difficult to achieve this value in online courses offered at non-elite and public universities, where a great deal limitations exist for recording, editing, and posting faculty lectures.  Faculty are expected to put online courses together without any budget – and sometimes with little time.  To accomplish this they often resort to piecing together relevant readings, videos, podcasts, and other online media that is available to them – through library subscriptions or online – to create their course content modules. Others rely on “canned” material from textbook providers. Although faculty are very good at doing this and protocols exist to ensure these are sufficiently constructed so that students get an education they are paying for, sometimes even very well constructed, the faculty voice is lost and students in these institutions do not get the sense of a personalized experience with the faculty member who, because of the lack of resources, behind the scenes.

My Innovation to Online Learning

I have been working on ways to develop online course material using instructional technology that delivers knowledge about the subject matter with the consistent voice of an expert and in the logical order found in the most well-constructed MOOCs with little to no additional cost to the university.

I believe I have done so in developing my online course, SOC333 Delinquency and Youth. The programs I used to create the instructional technology have no additional cost associated with them beyond what is readily available to all faculty at my public university (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) and I utilized no specialized services to create them.

SOC333 Delinquency and Youth has been a popular podium course in the sociology department for at least the previous ten years. In addition to sociology majors, it regularly attracts students in other majors interested in careers that provide human services to youth and juvenile delinquents including criminology (CRIM), psychology (PSYC), and child development and family relation (CDFR). Because the course attracts a range of students it offers instructors the challenge of providing useful, relevant, and interesting content to many who may or may not have been introduced to different elements of the subject matter from a related (but different) field. I taught several podium sections of the course over a 5-year period and, in that time, I created a unique approach to the course instruction that includes engaging lecture material that has been successful at meeting the challenge of aligning the diverse range of students to the course objectives while keeping them interested. Before proposing to develop SOC 333 as an online course, I determined that I would need to find a way to transfer this strategy to an online environment using instructional technology. I decided to do this using as many free or already available technologies as possible. They are described below.

Development of Lecture Video Content Using Adobe Premiere-Pro

I decided that I would develop and submit the proposal for conversion SOC 333 to an online offering prior to teaching a podium section of the course in spring 2016, which I would also record on digital video. Once I made this decision, I knew that I would need to revisit, update, and revise the lecture material I have developed for the course to prepare them for video. In revising the presentations, thought about how online instruction is not bound by the traditional classroom clock. I settled on revising my lecture slides by delineating weekly lectures into 3-5 segments that would be suitable for videos lasting 10-35 minutes in length.

To record the lectures, I went to Stapleton Library and consulted with the media circulation librarian to have an extended loan for a small digital camera and tripod. At the beginning of each class, I would place the tri-pod and camera in a still-shot position in the back of the room and record the entirety of the classroom activity. I would then download video file onto an external hard-drive and label the file to be edited in the future.

At the end of the semester, I used a free copy of the video editing software, Adobe Premiere-Pro, which was made available to me through IUP to edit the course lectures into clean and easy-to-watch video segments. I learned to use the program software at no cost though tutorials found on YouTube. During editing I removed student questions, classroom discussions, digressions, and moments of dead-air time from the videos. I also regularly spliced frames of the lecture slides into the videos. I created a free YouTube account upload the lecture videos, which I have made available for anyone to view. In addition to the students in my course using these videos they have, so far, been viewed over 8000 times by people in 110 countries. To summarize, I created over 15 hours of quality edited video of my own lectures, designed specifically for video, to be used for SOC333, using a video camera and tripod loaned from the library, and editing software available on any campus computer for which I taught myself to use. The total additional costs to accomplish this was $0.00.

Example of Lecture Video

Development of Recitation Videos Using Doceri

Once I developed video lecture content I realized that students may not be interested in watching 10-35 minute videos a second or third time when reviewing for exams. I also realized that review of the lecture slides may not provide enough of a foothold for some students with little background in sociological terminology or theory. In addition to this, other students may be familiar with some of the material covered in the course because of the background they received in their major or from another course. This led me to the idea of creating “recitation videos” of the lecture content, which would be shorter, condensed, with few illustrative examples and at a faster pace.

To design the video recitation, I decided that it would be the best pedagogical approach to have the lecture slides on-screen for viewing with me giving a voice-over. I also thought that it would be good for me to be able to underline, circle, and draw on the lecture slides while providing commentary. To increase the pacing of the recitation video I would attempt to reduce the length of the commentary to 1/3 the original lecture segment so that a lecture segment lasting 30 minutes would become a 10-minute recitation video.

To record the recitation videos, I used Doceri, which is a classroom presentation product available to any faculty member at IUP. Doceri allows instructors to use an iPad to create and voice-record presentations on a virtual whiteboard. Through mastering the use of the program, I was able to upload images of each slide to the virtual whiteboard, record my voice while simultaneously underlining, circling, highlighting, and illustrating the significant points of the slide, pause recordings, and transition between slides. Doceri also provides the function of uploading the recorded presentations to YouTube, which makes it highly compatible for sharing on D2L.

To summarize, I created over 5 hours of quality edited recitation video using the Doceri virtual whiteboard, which was uploaded to YouTube, and to be used for SOC333. The total additional costs to accomplish this was $0.00.

Example of Recitation Video

Development of Module and Instructional Content Introduction Videos Using OBS Studio

After I developed the course modules for SOC 333, I realized that each module would need a detailed introduction to the objectives of the module (what the module is about), instructional materials (what is in the module), and learning activities (what the student is expected to do). I have come to learn that for many students, detailed instructions that are well written can often be confusing and are many times overlooked. I realized that it would be better to provide students with a “walk-through” of each course module rather than to give detailed written instructions. To accomplish this, I decided to utilize a screen video capture program which records video of your computer screen while you use your computer. I first discovered that this type of program existed from watching YouTube tutorials of Adobe Priemiere-Pro.

After searching, I found that the program OBS studio was highly recommended by many users as well as a free downloadable open-sourced software program. What makes OBS studio so great is that, when combined with a web-camera, the program can simultaneously record both the user and their use of the computer. I used OBS studio to record introductions and directions to all the course modules, instructions and tips for the final paper, and an introduction for promoting the course to students. The video introductions were uploaded to YouTube and then embedded into the announcement section of the D2L homepage using HTML embed codes.

To summarize, I created approximately 2 hours of video introductions and instructions to each of the course modules that includes voice, video screen capture, and web-cam video using the open-sourced, free software program OBS studio. The total additional costs to accomplish this was $0.00.

Example of Introduction Video

Other Instructional Technology Innovations

In addition to the aforementioned innovations using video in SOC333 I have made a few other interesting innovations.

I used HTML embed code to create a Twitter widget for the D2L homepage. This widget broadcasts the updates I make from my twitter homepage ( on the D2L course site in the same way the IUP twitter widget located on the MyIUP homepage does. I provide multiple daily updates on twitter regarding news, events, and significant tweets relating to the fields of sociology, psychology, criminology, human development relating specifically juvenile delinquency. This provides students a sense of faculty presence on the D2L page. My utilization of twitter has been highly successful as I currently have 1830 followers of which approximately 1000 are IUP students.

I also used HTML embed code to create a widget for my blog ( This webpage provides a great deal of professional biographical information for students to learn more about their instructor – including blog posts relating to sociology, curriculum vitae, news articles featuring Dr. Vaccaro, course evaluation summaries, and contact information.

Screenshot of D2L Course Site with Blog and Twitter Widgets 

Quality Matters Instructional Technology Standards

The utilization of these instructional technologies meet or exceed the six Quality Matters standards for use of instructional technology in the online classroom. The tools used in the course support the learning objectives and competencies (6.1) by providing students with high-quality lecture and recitation video to help them understand the course. Course tools promote learner engagement and active learning (6.2) by providing students with video and audio that is compatible with tablet, PC, or smartphone technologies. Technologies required in the course are readily obtainable (6.3), free to use, and do not require subscription to any service. The course technologies are current (6.4). There are no need to provide links to privacy policies because they do not require a subscription or registration (6.5).

Most importantly, I created these instructional technologies at no additional cost to the university and required no additional specialized support beyond that of the course instructor. It is for these reasons that I believe I am innovating online instruction at my university and perhaps providing a road-map for similar innovations elsewhere.