Postproduction: How You Treat Your Online Course once the Filming is Done

Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.” —Japanese proverb

Picture a great teacher. Imagine that you can hear every word clearly and that each word makes you nod and lean forward with excitement at all you’re learning.

Cat under covers  Now picture a kitten plastered over the teacher’s face. Picture floating text, highlighting words like “the” or “maybe” but nothing relevant to the subject matter.

That’s failed postproduction.

Many teachers are inclined to rush through the postproduction phase of creating an online course. After all, they’ve written and recorded the course, right? What more is there?

Plus, most people are exhausted by the time they’ve reached the postproduction phase. They just want to wrap it up and pour a stiff drink.

The let’s-just-get-this-done-and-get-out-of-here approach is understandable, but it wastes one of the best advantages of online teaching—the opportunity to reinforce and clarify points visually.

What Is Postproduction in an Online Course?

Postproduction consists of everything you do to your course once you’ve recorded it.

Typically, a producer (or you) reviews your footage and/or slides to make decisions about how to edit the content for final presentation. That producer (or you) then marks up the material for editing (taking out bad cuts, splicing together your voice with a particular slide, etc.). The producer or an editor (or you) then does the actual work of making the whole online course look seamless.

The producer (or you) also adds in text, graphics, animations, and so forth that help support the teaching. In this issue, we’re only going to discuss onscreen text—what it is and when you use it. In the next of this series, we’ll look at guidelines for crafting visually effective onscreen text. In the last of the series, we’ll look at using graphics and integrating them with your onscreen text.

For our purposes, onscreen text refers to any text that the student sees during the course, whether it’s on a slide or superimposed on video.

Why Use Onscreen Text in an Online Course?

Onscreen text has one purpose: to enhance the learning. It can also make the learning more engaging, but that’s not its primary purpose. To restate: if it doesn’t enhance the learning, it’s like that kitten on the screen. It does nothing but distract (or amuse, but that’s not necessarily what you’re going after either).

This doesn’t mean that your supporting text must be so functional that it’s ugly. To the contrary—excellent supporting text has clean design and can be both functional as well as elegant. But there are some basic guidelines.

Studies show that it’s harder for students to glean the same knowledge from onscreen text as from paper-based text. So you have to think carefully about what you post, how much you post, and how it looks.

Studies also show that students scan rather than read onscreen text. That makes sense. They’re multi-tasking when they see text at the same time that they’re watching and/or listening to a teacher. Something’s got to give, which is why lengthy, densely packed text is ineffective. You don’t have time to read or absorb it.

For the same reason, including onscreen text that provides different information than what the teacher is saying is also ineffective. It doesn’t have to match word for word—you can leave out articles, transitions, and adjectives, for instance—but it should match the salient points.

“Value-added” content that has a student reading something different than what he/she is hearing pulls the student’s attention away from the teacher. It’s not just distracting; it almost guarantees that one or the other points—or perhaps both—will be at least partly missed.

Fortunately, the rules are straightforward for how to create meaningful, elegant onscreen text that will improve the learning experience.

What Goes Onscreen

The first question is what to put onscreen. Here are the essential guidelines:

  • Highlight your main points. These would be the Roman numerals in a formal outline. Put another way, they’re the points that the entire lesson hinges on. Without them, the content doesn’t coalesce.
  • Put up supporting points if they are critical to understanding the main points or challenging to follow. This is especially important when you have a series of steps, events, or facts that build up to a conclusion.
  • Put up important names, dates, formulas, and statistics. These are the details that are hard to comprehend and remember when you only hear them. They may also be critical elements of your content. Think of these as the things that would appear on a test or that are challenging to follow without visual reinforcement.
  • Put up terms and brief definitions that match how you identified them verbally.
  • Put up words with unusual spelling or that might be hard to understand if you don’t see as well as hear them. (Note: If you speak English as a second language, being able to see key terms will help students adjust to your accent.)

You may find other elements that for some reason need to be on the screen. Simply ask yourself first:

  • Will this make the material clearer?
  • Will it reinforce the point?
  • Will it make the point easier to remember?
  • Is the point clear and memorable without this information onscreen?

Use a Style Guide for All Onscreen Text

Create a style guide before you start editing, and adjust it whenever you make another style decision. Otherwise, you will invariably forget how you treated something in one lesson and do it differently in another.

Why does this matter? Consistent visuals keep the student from having to wonder what something means. They provide directions for how to read the information onscreen.

A good style guide reflects the hierarchy of importance and relationship among points. The most important point you make would usually be in the largest font, for instance. The least important is in the smallest font (still legible, however!). Similarly, you might put only your main points in red, and everything else in black.

Your style decisions present a set of cues that students assimilate and then don’t have to think about. If you mix up those cues, they mentally step out of the lesson to puzzle out whether you mean something different because you’ve changed your style. Or was it an accident? At any rate, for that split second, they’ve stopped listening. If they’re not listening, they’re not learning. Every time it happens, they disengage a bit more.

But effective visuals become invisible. They’re traffic signals that direct the brain to understand the level of importance of a point and to help us integrate the various bits of information that are pushing at us.

The style guide doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) complex. For example, here’s a partial style guide:

  • Font: Helvetica, 14 pt., black
  • Bold: Headings
  • Italics: Only proper titles
  • Split screen: Center heading. Round bullets for first tier. Diamonds for second tier
  • And so forth…

Onscreen Text Options

Students tend to look first at the upper left-hand corner of the screen. However, this is an awkward place visually for text, especially if it is superimposed on video of the teacher.

Here are the standard options for onscreen text:

  • “Lower third”: This is for short text of one-three lines that runs across the bottom of the screen.
  • “Split screen”: Used for longer text, bullet points, or “builds” when points appear on the screen as mentioned. The text is on one half of the screen, and the teacher on the other. A vertical split is visually more appealing than a horizontal split.
  • “Full screen”: Just what it says it is—the whole screen given over to text (unless you put the teacher in a box in one corner). Use when you need to show a lot of text—say you’re examining a quotation, or you want to bring together points from the entire course.
  • “Floating text”: When you want to emphasize a single word or phrase, you can move it across the screen for some visual interest. Mostly annoying as a tactic!

When it comes to style, the most important thing is to be consistent in what you show and how you show it. 

When it comes to teaching, the most important thing is that every decision you make during postproduction supports the desired outcome. That outcome? Simply put, students learn the material and are excited about what they’re learning.

Tune in next Friday for Issue #20 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll dig into how you go about making effective onscreen text for your online courses.

Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course:


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