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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Talking heads – How much are they really needed?

By Matt Jenner, on 13 March 2013

This is me, climbing up a tree in Buxton, UK.

This is me, climbing a tree.

What are you looking at?

Earlier today I was reminded of a topic I’ve wanted to explore more ever since I worked with Carl Gombrich from UCL’s BASc Arts and Sciences programme. In conversation about his flipped classroom model he mentioned, in passing, that people ‘can close the talking head’ and watch the other video feed, make notes, browse the web or simply walk around and listen. This instantly raised several questions:

  • What’s the value of the talking head?
  • Why do they close the talking head?
  • Is there something happening here we have not explored enough?
  • Why did Matt put his picture on this blog post?

I was reminded of this today, in a meeting with an external group I noticed most of the people around the room starred into the conference phone. Most did it when they were talking, others for listening – those who looked to be thinking of complex mathematical formulas and the science of life (or lunch) gave a mixed set of data. Without any research backing whatsoever (hold tight), Carl is right. When watching a recorded lecture, people can close that talking head at their discretion. For lecture capture we’re talking about a camera fixed to the back of the room, a pixellated academic  who goes in and out of shot but does have their best tie on. The other thing to consider is that  focusing on the captured display device might be a preference anyway – as it’s showing the projected content but this is a bigger video, centered to the screen – it’s more dominant.

So what is the value of the talking head?

Value (y) of talking head over time (x)

Value (y) of talking head over time (x)

As indicated by my very technical graph made from assumptions alone (yikes) I’d expect to see it starts really high, peaks around a muddy spot, point of clarification or unexpected event and then finally towards the end. Otherwise I’d expect it drops to very low levels the rest of the time. What does this head add? Perhaps initially we want to see who’s talking to us, but I’d expect most people may know the speaker and instead want to know other questions. Previously these have ranged from:

  • When studying from non-class/campus locations I like to see who’s talking to me
  • I’m a social being, I like to see others
  • Checking the speaker isn’t doing it in their pants from home
  • And so on.

I am sure there’s better reasons, but ultimately we’re generally a social animal and perhaps it’s as simple as ‘I like to see them, at least for a bit’.

Why do people close the talking head?

Perhaps once we’ve confirmed how nice their office / home is and checked weather they are indeed wearing clothes we’re less attracted by this face and we close it off. A real study here would be fascinating. Imaging the same recording to thousands of people and all your measuring is when the talking head is closed/opened. With large classes or a MOOC this is easy or longitudinally over the same service and many, many different videos and viewers  (i.e. Lecturecast) it’s also easy and the data should show measurable results.

Is there something happening here we have not explored enough?

I think so. If anyone out there has done more on this it would be interesting to see it. There’s something in here about clearly highlighting the level of human to human face-exposure. It’s higher than zero but I’d expect lower than 100%. But where does it sit? If anyone’s got more research/data do let me know. For distance learning or massive online courses, I think this information could be very interesting.

What did you look at at the beginning of the post?

Answers below please 🙂

6 Responses to “Talking heads – How much are they really needed?”

  • 1
    Steve Rowett wrote on 13 March 2013:

    Hi Matt. Interesting post, and I think you are right that the value of the talking head changes over time.

    We’ve got a lot of experience at understanding audio-only media, and audio-and-video media, namely radio and television. I think what’s key is that radio presenters talk differently to TV ones; they need to paint a picture in a listerer’s mind in the way that TV presenters don’t. It’s a different art form, a different way of expressing one’s ideas.

    I’m increasingly thinking that some form of media training or exposure would be a real asset to teaching, especially where the teaching is captured for later replay or broadcast live.

  • 2
    Matt Jenner wrote on 13 March 2013:

    As a person who is slowly enjoying the affects of aging (shocking I know) I’ve started to listed to Radio 4 more. I noticed immediately that some people seem to have just come out of RadioSchool. They try to describe everything in a bizarre and vivid amount of detail. It makes me think though, that this media training might be a component that adds value to how they see themselves as a presenter; describing an environment/sitation/context that people can’t see – as an author would. I agree completely that it’s an art form and that’s a lovely way to describe the composer – as the artist.

    Media training would make a fantastic component as universities increasingly enter the world stage, especially in the world of recorded lectures, distance and online courses, social media etc.

  • 3
    Fiona Strawbridge wrote on 13 March 2013:

    I looked at your name as the notification didn’t make clear who the author was! Then i scanned down and saw the graph but I didn’t look at the picture of you at all until i go to the bit where you referred to it…

  • 4
    Matt Jenner wrote on 13 March 2013:

    I’m glad my research can be concluded – Fiona didn’t need my floating head. Maybe more data are needed before I can conclude on this.

    (also, we had our blog setup in a wonky way. I’ve changed the email so it now says who’s posted.)

  • 5
    Steve Rowett wrote on 13 March 2013:

    I read it by first scrolling down to the graph, examining what that meant, then scrolling up and down looking at some of the words. So maybe leave out the words too next time 😎

  • 6
    Annora Eyt-Dessus wrote on 13 March 2013:

    It seems natural to turn towards a physical object as a way of observing social conventions of attention when bringing someone in virtually.
    For recorded lectures or live broadcasts/meetings, the very flexibility they offer mean that they are often combined simultaneously with other activities – note taking/transport etc…
    In this ‘noisy’ context, watching someone passionate about their subject can be a real stimulus, a real hook of interest back into the material. Of course, in this case as in the face to face teaching, a really engaging experience demands real skill and is often the result of long years of practice!
    As recording is particular in that the teaching moment is replayable it certainly represents an excellent opportunity for review and reflection on delivery, especially if tailored with the integration of technology.

    As an aside, when I looked at the post the team photos was actually the first thing that caught my eye. 🙂

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