Talking heads: attraction or distraction?

A talking head is the phrase often used to describe a video feed of the narrator within a screencast. It has been suggested on the basis of anecdotal evidence that students like having a ‘talking head’ in screencasts, as it gives the video a more personal feel, and I have gone along with this approach so far in my own practice.

But do talking heads help? Does being able to see the person encourage more effective learning? Or does it distract from the content being covered? This is a question that we’re trying to probe this summer.

Dr Eugene McSorley in Psychology uses eye-tracking technology as a research tool for investigating topics such as phobias. While showing a series of images on a computer screen to a subject, eye-trackers allow him to follow where the subject is looking, and for how long. In this project, we’re going to use this technology to investigate how students interact with screencasts, with and without talking heads, and to find out whether talking heads help, hinder, or have no effect on the short-term retention of information.

For this project, Eugene and I have recruited two UROP students: Luxveeka (an MChem Chemistry student) and Nadyne (a BSc Psychology student), to design, carry out and analyse a series of eye-tracking experiments. The project started on Monday and will run for six weeks. Watch this space!

Team selfie! From l-r: Nadyne, Eugene, David & Luxveeka (wearing the eye-tracking headset)

Team selfie! From l-r: Nadyne, Eugene, David & Luxveeka (wearing the eye-tracking headset)


5 thoughts on “Talking heads: attraction or distraction?

  1. This is a great idea! Personally, I think I find a talking head in a screencast for the whole duration distracting (although eye-tracking might suggest otherwise!) It does add the personal touch and serves to remind the viewer that there is a person behind the voice, but I find its presence a bit distracting from the content. I think the ideal would be to have the talking head appear at the beginning and end of the screencast, introducing and concluding it. I’ll be interested to see the findings of this research and would be happy to be tested. I’ve done eye-tracking before and I’m aware that the results it produces can be quite different to what we think they’ll be! Good luck and I will, indeed, watch this space!

  2. I’ve just come across a section on talking heads and personalisation in Chapter 9 of Clark and Mayer’s “e-Learning and the science of instruction”, which you may find of interest

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