Yet another renaissance for the training video

Last week I participated in a webinar hosted by Video Arts, one of the world’s most successful vendors of training films, perhaps most famous for the comic ‘see how not to do it, then learn how it should be done’ videos featuring John Cleese and other comedy stars. Video Arts was formed in 1972 by a number of colleagues at the BBC, including Anthony Jay and Cleese himself, who were dismayed at the poor quality of the training films that the BBC were showing them and realised there was an opportunity to do a better job themselves.

My involvement began in the late 1970s, when I became a Video Arts customer, using their films to liven up and add some variety to classroom events. They were very successful at doing this job and most people can recall at least a few scenes from Video Arts films they saw many decades ago. As for me, I mainly remember having to set them up on a 16mm projector, with all the hassle this entailed. Luckily VHS came on the scene soon after, which simplified the process no end and helped to trigger the late 70s boom in corporate video.

In the mid 80s it looked like the advent of interactive video (typically PCs hooked up to laserdisc players to deliver self-paced, media-rich lessons) would spell the end of the simple, passive experience of watching a 30 minute training video. But although interactive video delivered some wonderful content (in many cases unmatched by today’s e-learning), constant changes of media kept getting in the way:

  1. The move from laserdisc to CD-ROM constrained bandwidth so significantly that video was an impossibility. Only ten years later were CD-ROMs fast enough to do the job, by which time text and still graphics had taken centre stage.
  2. Then the shift from CD-ROM to online delivery set us back again, with no chance for years to come of video at any sensible frame rate or window size. Text and still graphics remained dominant and the only outlet for the training video was in the classroom,albeit now on DVD rather than tape.

But all good things come to those who wait and, with broadband now so commonplace, video is resurgent once more. Whether we’ll see a return to interactive video as a more media-rich form of self-paced e-learning remains to be seen. Of more interest is the emergence of a third form of training video (although that now seems a rather quaint old term) – the short, how-to video nugget covering a single topic and designed for use in a variety of contexts. Perhaps the best examples of this new form are the videos from Common Craft, but expect to see many new genres develop. These videos can be used on a stand-alone basis, shown in class (real or virtual), integrated into self-paced materials or used as a trigger for online discussions. They are one of the first manifestations of YouTube thinking brought to the workplace and capture the mood of the times far better than their rather ancient predecessors.

Video Arts has changed hands many times (the founders got out a long time ago when the going was good) but is still doing good business nearly 40 years later. But they must realise that the days in which learners would sit passively for 30 minutes at a time are drawing to a close. The company is reinventing itself once again as provider of a versatile digital content library containing short chunks of learning material, You-Tube style. Whether chopped-up videos from years past will fulfil this function perfectly remains to be seen. Chances are they’ll have to start creating new content to fit the new model. If they do then, who knows, they could still be going 40 years from now.

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