Challenging eLearning Best Practices: How Long Should Training Videos Be?

According to conventional wisdom, and with no shortage of corroborating statistics, attention spans are shrinking — down from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015. That’s barely enough time to finish this paragraph.

It’s a trend that’s caused quite a bit of concern, especially amongst those responsible for employee training and development. It’s not hard to see the challenge: in the modern knowledge economy, where seemingly every task and function involves specialized expertise, how can companies deliver increasingly complex instructional information to an audience with an ever-shortening attention span?

By now, most everyone in Learning & Development has heard the calls to shrink the length of their emails, manuals, videos, and more in order to maximize employee engagement. And in our data-obsessed world, everyone has a theory about how long an email should be, how long a manual should be, and how long a video should be.

Is there actually a magic number for success, though?

The quest to quantify the optimal length for digital content stems from the standards traditional media outlets have seemingly perfected over decades. News publishers, television studios, and movie producers each have a sweet spot where budget, production resources, and audience attention spans intersect — 800-word feature articles, 41-second news blocks, 2-hour movies, and so on.

Generally speaking, for video online, the magic number for optimal engagement appears to be between 2 to 5 minutes. Studies examining engagement with YouTube videos consistently show solid viewership through the first 2 minutes of a video, a gradual decline in engagement after 2 minutes, and a sharper drop after 5 minutes.

But how people interact with the content on YouTube is likely a poor indicator of how they’ll engage with content created for the workplace. So let’s ask a better question:

How Long Should Employee Training Videos Be?

Studies of instructional video content suggest that viewer engagement follows a similar but slightly different pattern, offering corporate trainers tasked with optimizing learning amid tight budgets, limited production resources, and packed employee schedules a general guideline for producing engaging training videos.

Nearly all experts firmly believe that training videos should be as long as they need to be in order to meet learning objective; however, research suggests that 6 minutes is the optimal length for instructional videos. After 6 minutes engagement drops rapidly. In fact, another study showed that most learners won’t watch video training for more than 15 minutes.

Findings like these have already caught the attention of instructional designers, and in large part these numbers are what has driven the buzz around microlearning. The idea here makes intuitive sense — if instructional content can be cut into small, self-contained modules, it will be easier for employees to identify the content that’s most relevant to their needs. Likewise, if learning content is delivered in small, single-topic sessions, employees will be able to learn what they need and get back to work more quickly.

From an instructional design standpoint, microlearning even offers some nice efficiencies: training content can still be delivered in the traditional longer formats common to instructor-led learning, and with a little planning, that full session can (usually) be edited down into a series of microlearning modules. Not only are chunked video modules easier for trainers to update and modify than 30-minute long video courses, but they are also convenient for busy learners who may be viewing with a mobile device or who only need one training module to understand the material.

Is Microlearning Solving the Wrong Problem?

For all the buzz around microlearning’s potential to deliver training content to shortening attention spans, a fair question remains unasked: does microlearning actually help employees learn? Or is it just a band-aid that helps make specific instructional content easier to find?

The industry consensus so far appears to be that microlearning delivers content in a way that’s more aligned with how employees actually work. But availability isn’t the same as effectiveness.

The simple fact remains that most roles in today’s workplaces require a fair amount of advanced- to expert-level knowledge. Microlearning may be a reasonable approach to teaching people how to use the new expense reporting system, but most of what companies really want to teach their teams will be substantially more complex and nuanced. The end-to-end workings of a code base, the rigors of a new sales process, the expectations for new managers — these are subjects that cannot effectively be taught in 6 minutes or less.

Here, of course, microlearning practitioners would agree. The general approach for supporting more complex content with microlearning is to create and share a number of separate materials and either assign employees to follow a “playlist,” or simply enable people to “choose their own adventures” in order to learn all there is to know.

But this brings us back to the question above. If employees have to consume many pieces of smaller content to learn the lesson, what value is the microlearning format providing?

And if it is just about making it easier to find relevant content on-demand, shouldn’t we skip doing all the extra editing and planning to support microlearning and just investing in better search tools instead?

Challenging eLearning Best Practices With Video Search

When it comes to video, overwhelmingly the best practices say training videos should be short. And when the only means to search videos were metadata elements like tags and titles, that was sensible. It was difficult to know what content could be found in any video, and most companies didn’t want their people watching a full 60-minute training recording when they only needed a specific 2 minutes of the content.

But that’s the old way of doing things.

There’s one relatively new capability that may make the question of how long a video should be completely irrelevant. Smarter video search.

Today, video search technology exists that enables learners to search the content inside video content, just as they would the web or email. Panopto’s industry-leading Smart Searchtechnology, for example, uses automatic speech recognition (ASR) and optical character recognition (OCR) to index every word spoken or shown within a video. This makes it possible for employees to instantly find and fast-forward to the exact moment a relevant topic is discussed in a video, no matter its length.

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