Best practices for using videos in online instruction

There is a wide variety of subject matter and use cases for video in online instruction. How can you present a video in your course in a way that maximizes the attention learners put to it?

It is very common to see online courses where a video link is posted in a module with little or no context for the learners to watch it from, or only frail connections to the other activities in the module. We offer the following guidelines.

Why is video useful in online instruction?:

Video is not a cure-all or a do-all for online instruction. It is, at best, a cognitive guide, an advance organizer, or focal point for observation. At worst, videos can be perceived as a poor substitute for something that should have been presented in-person, or a distraction that causes more disorientation in learners than co-orientation to subject matter.

Your decision to use video, therefore, should be based on its strengths and potential benefits.

As a guide, consider using video when:

The content reproduces a situation-based context where observation of human performance or interaction is a critical component of a learning activity, i.e. observing the verbal/non-verbal interaction between individuals in a conflict situation and what resolution strategies the participants employ.

The content reproduces an environment for learners where their observations and responses are analogous to those they will rely upon in authentic situations, i.e. simulation of events in a typical nursing practice scenario where the learner’s observations of the video are useful in in-service practice.

The content includes a time-based component that helps the learner to observe changes in conditions and variables over time, i.e. scientific experiments where observing cause and effect are critical in testing hypotheses.

The content reproduces spatial relationships among objects.

The content demonstrates a complex process or procedure where the benefit of on-demand access, repetition, and freeze framing would be advantageous for learners to engage with at their own pace.

The content offers access to events or phenomena that cannot be accessed by any other way with equal impact, i.e. a presentation recording of a prominent person, a film/commercial/program from the past, etc.

On the downside:

  • It may be difficult to find a video that encompasses only the content you wish to cover. You may find the perfect video for your needs – except the section you want is 33 minutes into an hour-long presentation! There are ways to make this situation work, but it requires a few extra steps (contact Ed tech if this happens!).
  • Captioning is a must. Hopefully, you will find something already captioned. If not, it is your responsibility to make it so. Contact Ed Tech for help with this. Each case is different.
  • Some students may have difficulty accessing the video. Streaming video over the Internet requires a typical broadband connection for the best user experience. Some students may only have dial-up access or may use a mobile device or tablet for accessing their course content. This creates barriers to access that could cause problems. It is best to know if any of your students have issues with these variables. 

On the upside:

  • Video is a powerful medium, as described above.
  • There are gazillions of videos out there on just about any topic. There has never been a better time to utilize the cultural bounty of our generation. This is the world your students dwell in, so reap its benefits to your advantage.
  • You are able to control the engagement conditions and the focus of attention. As the instructor, you hold editorial discretion over what is played and how to frame it in context for students.

What is the best plan to make this work?:

Let’s address a typical scenario from the beginning:

You’ve located a video of a prominent lecturer/presenter or a historically significant clip that you want to use in your course. Your primary goals are:

  1. Find the best, freely available version of your video online, if there are alternative versions available.
  2. Determine if the video has a Share feature so you can post it in your course. Not all videos are allowed to be shared.
  3. Determine if it already has captioning. If not, contact Ed Tech for further guidance.
  4. Plan how you want your students to engage with this video in terms of the instructional outcome, and then write/develop the preparatory “wrapper” content.
  5. Post the video in your course.


1. Find the best version of your selected video

An instructor once found a YouTube video of the famous “Daisy Girl” TV commercial shown during the 1964 presidential campaign:

However, a basic Google search located a much better quality version of it – both on YouTube and on

=> If there is a possibility that your video can be found with better playback quality, captioning features, or an ad-/comment-free environment, search for it.

2. Does the video have a Share feature?

Most videos published online have a Share feature, but not all. When you locate your video, look for a button or link near the video player that will show you its various Share options. There are a few.

Your goal is to locate the Share feature and copy an embed code.

Read more about embed code and why it is the best way to publish a video in Moodle

If you upload a video file directly into Moodle (like a file upload), it will adversely affect the overall performance of Moodle. Streaming video requires more Internet bandwidth to playback cleanly, which affects how responsive Moodle is to other interactions. It is bad idea to stream video from a video file upload.

Embed code, on the other hand, allows your video to playback from the publisher’s media server – not Moodle – even though the video images appear in your course.

3. Determine if it already has captioning. If not, contact Ed Tech for further guidance.

Captioning of video content is required under ADA compliance. In your selected video, check if there is closed captioning included – usually displayed when you click on a “CC” or “Captions” button on the video player controls.

Some videos, such as those on, tend to be captioned already. If you have created your own video, be sure to caption it. If you do not own the video and are curating it from YouTube, you will need to contact Ed Tech to be guided through the process of having videos captioned through an alternative method.

4. Plan how you want your students to engage with your video in terms of the instructional outcome and develop the preparatory content.

This stage is perhaps the most important part of using video as a resource for your course.

Foremost in your efforts is to ensure that learners are engaged with the content with a clear purpose, with tasks to attend to while watching. You will want their engagement experience to be a “lean forward” (attentive) activity rather than a “lean back” (passive) activity.

Producing this effect is a challenge because you will be battling against your students having watched a lifetime of videos as entertainment. Thus, when you provide students with a video to watch as part of your course activities, you cannot expect that they will engage with it as they would other typical instructional media, i.e. textbook, research article, discussion forum, etc. 

We need to place engagement prompts and tasks around video resources so that the focus of attention is purposeful rather than passive (Fleming & Levie, 1993).

We recommend the following plan:

In your course module, preface the video with a brief description.

Describe what the video is about in broad terms, such as,

“The following video features Clay Shirky, a renowned writer, educator, and presenter on the impact of the Internet on global social and economic discourse. The recording is from a presentation made at the WIRED Conference in 2012 about Future Social Systems”.

This description helps the learner get some sense of the kind of media they will be watching – a lecture, documentary, or an entertainment piece – and also provides some background for further independent exploration.

Before students watch the video, provide some guiding thoughts and questions for the learner to think about while they watch.

Your goal here is NOT to tell them what to watch for, specifically. This will cause them to shut out their attention to everything except what you tell them to look for.

Instead, ask learners to watch for certain themes: What assumptions does the speaker depend upon to make his/her case? Which principles from the textbook readings are being applied here? What ideas do you feel were left missing from this presentation, and how do you justify adding them?

Tasked with these or other thoughts, your students will direct their attention to important themes rather than trying to decode the entirety of a given presentation for some unknown purpose. Remember, you have seen this video before – but your students likely have not.

Make their time engaged with it as optimized for learning as possible. Remember that what you ask learners to observe for should anticipate what they will need in able to respond appropriately to discussion questions.

Students should be directed to document their engagement with the media in some form for future reference.

Since we are asking learners to consider certain thoughts or questions while they watch a video, we should also ask them to document their reactions to it. We recommend a directive along the lines of:

“While you watch Shirky’s presentation consider the following thoughts and questions: What assumptions does Shirky depend upon to make his case? Which principles from the textbook readings are being applied here?

“Take notes as you watch so that you will be prepared to use them in your Discussion Forum responses. Try to watch the video and respond in the Forum as soon as you can while your experiences are still fresh.”

Your goal with this prompt is to add anticipation of Forum participation into the engagement experience, have students document their experiences, and then participate in discussion as soon as possible to activate their recent experiences into long-term memory by using them in a composing activity.

Create interaction that draws from students’ engagement experiences.

Students’ notes should be used to support a position, observation, or hypothesis in a Discussion forum or other interaction. For example:

“Shirky claims that the more we share of ourselves online, the greater good can come of it, even if it involves exposure of our personal information. What ideas in his presentation could you use to persuade your spouse – who treasures privacy – to blog about a serious illness he or she is going through, where doing so might help others in a similar situation?

In contrast, which of Shirky’s ideas would you use to argue against to keep your spouse’s illness private? Why would you take this position, given the possibility of contributing to a greater good?”

Bloom’s Taxonomy may be a useful guide in determining the level of thinking that would be most appropriate in this kind of activity, specifically in the wording and tasks activities. Consider the character of the learners and the degree of prior knowledge with the subject matter.

5. Post the video in your course.

Once you have written the “wrapper” for the video, post the video and all of the supporting content into your course.

In the process, you may find that the video asset you have procured may or may not meet your needs. If not, at least you will have a more clear idea for what you will need – either a different video or perhaps a different plan.

Remember that the most important consideration in using video in an instructional activity is that it aligns with a Learning Outcome or instructional goal for your course: 

The Learning Outcome/Instructional Goal =>

The “wrapper” you write around the video asset =>

The evidence of learning your students will produce in response to engagement =>

The assessment, based on criteria written in the Learning Outcome



Fleming, M. & Levie, W. H. (Eds.) (1993). Instructional message design: Principles from the behavioral and cognitive sciences (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

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