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Online courses: video vs text based learning
I love learning from the written word. And I sometimes get worried when I see text based learning getting short shrift amidst the video-focused explosion of interest in online learning.
Video seems to have become the go-to default expectation for online course formats. I imagine this trend probably started back when video was harder, more expensive, and more time-consuming to produce. Therefore, it seemed reasonable to assume that if a company or teacher had the resources to spend money and time on producing and editing videos, the value of the instruction itself would also be high-quality.
But as video has become more and more affordable and accessible, the assumption that online courses must be video-first can be destructive. There are too many slow, meandering video courses that assume the learner has nothing better to do than to sit through hours upon hours of poorly-edited, dull video presentations that do little to advance their knowledge, learning, or insights.
Now, there are absolutely some topics and courses that are a great fit for the video format— and some course creators who do an amazing job of teaching with video. For example, video is the perfect medium for over-the shoulder, step-by-step technical tutorials like Marie Poulin’s exceptional Notion YouTube office hours and her Notion Mastery course. I’m grateful to have video available as a learning option when the fit is right.
But because the video has become the default expectation for online learning, there are concepts being taught by a video that simply do not need to be taught via video. And it’s getting to the point where I’m beginning to resent the omnipresence of video in online learning and tutorials.
When I type a question into Google, I really have no interest in sitting through and skipping around in a YouTube video for the answer to my question— if I was looking for a video tutorial, I would have searched my question on YouTube. When I search a question on Google, I want a text-based answer — maybe with a supplementary image or diagram, sure. But at the end of the day, nothing beats text, because:
- Text is quick
- Text is respectful of my time
- Text is easy to copy and paste into my own PKM system for future reference
- Text takes me seconds to read then lets me get back to my work
I’ll admit, I’m biased— I’m a text-based learner myself, and chose to design my Calmer Notes course as a text-first learning experience. But I know that I’m not alone in preferring to learn from the written word. With that in mind, here’s a roundup of some of the benefits of text-based learning to consider.
Five benefits of text based learning
Text is portable, speedy, and efficient
The written word is portable, efficient, and takes up very little bandwidth or space on your hard drive. You can read it anywhere, on any device, and easily save it to read offline, too. No buffering, no slow downloads— even with a slow internet connection, you can usually download reams of text in a matter of moments.
In terms of speed, you can also speed read text in a way that’s simply not possible with video. Have you ever sat through an interminable video presentation from a speaker who goes at the pace of molasses? Sure, you can install a video speed controller plugin and keep hitting the “D” shortcut on your keyboard to speed up a slow, meandering presenter. But then if they say something important, you find yourself scrambling, going back, and re-listening. When you’re reading text, you can effortlessly speed up and slow down at precisely the pace you choose— no plugins or keyboard shortcuts required.
Text can become part of your own personal knowledge management system
The deepest learning comes from actively engaging with content, rather than just passively consuming ideas. When you take an online course, you’ll want to capture the most important take-aways for you, and refer to them in the future
Want to annotate and expand on some ideas from a text-based course? Copy and paste the relevant passages into your own personal knowledge management system, and away you go. If you want, you can go higher tech, and install a highlighter for your browser that’s integrated with an app like Readwise, to seamlessly capture learning into your note taking system.
Want to take notes on a video course? You’ll need to pause, go back, transcribe, replay, pause again, wait for the video to buffer, quickly type up what you think they said, then completely lose your train of thought as you try to recall the extra annotation or insight you wanted to add.
Reading text is silent
Text-based learning requires zero fussing with headphone cords or unreliable Bluetooth wireless connections. You can consume text-based learning quietly, as you:
- Wait in line
- Rock a sleeping baby in the wee hours of the night
- Put in a few moments between appointments
- In the late hours or early morning, when your house is quiet, without accidentally turning up the video on your laptop and waking up your entire family
Text based learning is polite, considerate, and unobtrusive. Text based learning is cognizant of the fact that most adult learners and online learners are trying to fit in life long learning amidst other life responsibilities and tasks. We don’t have all day to sit in front of a video screen– we’re usually trying to squeeze in learning, reflection, and self-development in the nooks and crannies of our schedules.
Text is inclusive, accessible, and easier to translate
Text based courses allow learners with visual or hearing impairments to benefit from the course with few modifications. Hearing impaired learners can access text based learning without any additional work required. Visually impaired learners can use text-to-speech apps (like Speechify or similar) to get the full contents of the course (unlike a video course, where they may be able to hear the audio portion but miss out on the visual component that may not be fully described within the audio track).
Want to learn from a course that was created in another language? In a text-based course, you can use online translation tools (like Google Translate or similar) and you’re all set. If you want to learn from a video course originally created in another language, you’ll have to wait for the course creator to pay someone else to translate it, or pay for pricey video translation yourself.
Text is skimmable & respectful of your time
When you’re reading an online course (or a blog post, or a textbook), you can easily skim over headings, tables, and diagrams to get a sense of the key points and ideas of a chapter or module before you plunge into the content in earnest. This makes it easy for you to get to the part of the learning that’s most relevant for you at this morning— you can do a quick review of information that’s already familiar to you, then do a deep dive into the new ideas and concepts. Active learning theory recommends that learners review headings, images, and diagrams first, to provide some “scaffolding” for new ideas. In contrast, this is virtually impossible to do with video.
Further to the skimmability of text— learning from the written word is far more respectful of your time than video. When you’re skimming text, you’re in charge. You can effortlessly jump around, browse, and pick and choose what’s most relevant for you right now. If you want to skip around in a video, conversely, you’re apt to become increasingly irritated as you sit through fluffy filler content, then accidentally skip too far ahead as you attempt to fast forward to the part you’re actually interested in.
Now, I truly appreciate that video exists as one of many options for online learning. It’s phenomenal technology, and I don’t want it to go anywhere. But I want to make sure that text based learning continues to keep its place as a learner-centred, accessible, efficient, inclusive, polite learning format that remains a highly valuable option for virtual learning and online courses.