Embedding visual storytelling techniques into academic development videos

Photo credit: Jakob Owens, Unsplash CC0

In this post, Joe Arton provides a useful guide on how to produce high-quality, pedagogical videos with individual laptop cameras, built-in microphones, and video conferencing software. Joe Arton is an Academic Developer and the Teaching Matters podcast producer at the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. This post is part of May-June’s ‘Hot Topic’ series:  “Teaching and Learning during a Pandemic: Lessons and reflections from the last year”.


The move to digital and hybrid teaching and learning in 2020, transformed the way that academic development videos were produced. There was a shift among practitioners from professional grade video production technologies, digital cameras and external audio equipment to individual laptop cameras, built-in microphones, and video conferencing software (Microsoft Teams, Collaborate and Zoom).

This resource identifies the hidden curriculum in the formal features and visual language of these videos and identifies some best practices for individually created videos on MS Teams and similar platforms. This resource draws on research at the intersection of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), Digital Education, and Film and Media Studies. Rather than focusing solely on technical skills development, this resource illustrates that the production and distribution of digital academic development videos should be approached as a cognitive, emotional, and embodied pedagogical practice.

Creators should aim to develop a critical cultural consciousness about video production and approach the creation of these videos with culturally responsive pedagogy, incorporating students’ prior knowledge and community experience into the digital teaching and learning experience. This is because for students the formal features of these videos; the composition, camera angles, lighting, and framing all operate within existing media genre preferences and tastes located within societal structures and emerging convergence cultures.

The ways that students emotionally experience digital video impacts the approach they take to learning and ultimately the outcomes of that learning. By applying deliberate, creative, and evidence-driven principles, creators can increase the possibilities for student engagement with the subject matter.

Screenshot provided by Joe Arton

Reduce Power Asymmetries with Camera Angles

When producing digital videos with MS Teams, it is important to take a learner/audience-centric approach and consider the effect the formal features of the image has on the learner/audience. In Figure 1, the laptop camera angle is positioned low on the vertical axis, below the eye line of the presenter pointing upwards. Research into the influence of camera angles on comprehension and retention of pictorial events illustrates that when the viewer is forced to look ‘up’ at a person on screen they are perceived as more aggressive and powerful than when viewed from a high angle, which forces the viewer to look down (Kraft, 1987). Using a low angle in an educational video establishes an asymmetrical power relationship between the presenter and the learner and reinforces the power asymmetries inherent in much of university education.

Screenshot provided by Joe Arton

In contrast, in Figure 2, the laptop camera is at eye-level which establishes a neutral status for the presenter. Neutral, eye-level camera angles create a sense of parity with the audience and a perceived similarity to the presenter. Neutral camera angles have been theoretically and empirically linked to an increase in audience empathy in media research (Kraft 1987) and allow teachers to take conscious, embodied actions that exhibit empathy with learners (Horn, 2019).

Best Practice

  • Make sure that your laptop camera is head-on and at eye level.
  • Use a set of books, laptop stand, or a higher table to make sure that your camera is at the same level as your eyes.

Reduce the Opacity of Learning with Good Lighting

Lighting defines the visual mood and cognitive and emotional environment for the audience/learner. Returning to Figure 1, notice how the presenter is backlit and their body functions as an opaque object blocking out the primary light source.

As a result, the image is made up primarily of dark tones with a high contrast between light and darkness on the screen. In film and media genres such as the contemporary crime or conspiracy thriller, the decantation of light is used as a metaphor for opacity and imperceptibility in knowledge, motivations, or plot. The effect on the audience/learner is disorientation and alienation. Analysing lighting in educational videos as a practice, offers an embodied example of the alienation/engagement framework for understanding student learning (Case, 2007).

In contrast to Figure 1, Figure 2, shows the largest or key light source as directly in front of the presenter. Research shows that audiences associate warm, fontal lighting with positive attributes (Matbouly, 2020) including transparency, vulnerability, and most importantly openness. Unlike backlighting, frontal lighting signals to learners the possibility of further opportunities for wider open pedagogical practices.

Best Practice

  • Make sure that your largest light source in the room (window or lamp if there’s no natural light) is directly in front of you or no more than 45 degrees from directly in front of you.
  • If you’re not using natural light, it’s worth reducing the brightness of your laptop screen so it doesn’t wash out the colour in your face. Try not to have too many competing light sources in the room as this can also reduce the quality of the image on the screen.

Make Learning Outcomes Sound Great  

A soundwave of a video recording captured on audio software

Sound has an outsized effect on student learning (Gifford, 2014). In the same way that the acoustical design and external noises of a physical classroom can impact student learning (Cohen, Evans, Krantz, & Stokols, 1981; Shield & Dockrell, 2008), voices on video recordings need to be clear, open, and understandable for students.

There are several risks to sound quality when producing individually created video recordings on MS Teams. These include capturing unwanted background noises such as internal building sounds, computer fans, acoustical interference (feedback), additional voices, app notifications and traffic. For audiences/learners, poor quality or intelligible sound can have an especially negative effect on the completion of activities that require careful listening (Kennedy, Hodgson, Edgett, Lamb, & Rempel, 2006; McSporran, 1997). To create an effective learning experience with video, it is important to control the audio quality and reduce imperfections and missing sounds by using the correct technology and methodology.

Best Practice

  • Use an external headset or microphone and aim for your voice to travel off to the side, diagonally rather than straight into the microphone.
  • Close or turn off notifications on any other applications on your desktop when recording and turn off/silence your mobile phone.
  • Depending on availability, record in a quiet, isolated room during the quietest part of the day so you can only hear the person talking.


  • Case, J.M. Alienation and engagement: development of an alternative theoretical framework for understanding student learning. High Educ55321–332 (2008).
  • Cohen, S., Evans, G. W., Krantz, D. S., Stokols, D., & Kelly, S. (1981). Aircraft noise and children: Longitudinal and cross-sectional evidence on adaptation to noise and the effectiveness of noise abatement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 331-345
  • Dashielle Horn; The Role of Empathy in Teaching and Tutoring Students with Learning Disabilities. Pedagogy1 January 2019; 19 (1): 168–176.
  • Gifford, R. (2014). Environmental psychology: Principles and practice (5th ed.). Colville, WA: Optimal Books.
  • Kraft, R. N. (1987). The influence of camera angle on comprehension and retention of pictorial events. Memory & Cognition, 15, 291–307.
  • Lankhuizen, T., Bálint, K. E., Savardi, M., Konijn, E. A., Bartsch, A., & Benini, S. (2020, September 24). Shaping Film: A Quantitative Formal Analysis of Contemporary Empathy-Eliciting Hollywood Cinema. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.
  • Matbouly, M.Y. Quantifying the unquantifiable: the color of cinematic lighting and its effect on audience’s impressions towards the appearance of film characters. Curr Psychol(2020)
  • Meyers-Levy, J., & Peracchio, L. A. (1992). Getting an angle in advertising: The effect of camera angle on product evaluations. Journal of Marketing Research, 29, 454 – 461.
  • Shield, B. M., & Dockrell, J. E. (2008). The effects of environmental and classroom noise on the academic attainments of primary school children. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 123, 133-144.

Photo of the author

Joseph Arton

Dr. Joe Arton is an Academic Developer at the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh, he is the co-editor and producer of Teaching Matters blog and podcast and curates The Edinburgh Hybrid Teaching Exchange, the University of Edinburgh’s internal site for Hybrid Teaching and Learning resources and best practice.

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