Image: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT (screenshots courtesy of the researchers)

If you’ve ever heard of Wadsworth’s Constant, you’ll know that videos, especially instructional videos, need a little scrubbing before it gets to the point. In case you aren’t in the know, the Redditor it’s named after is quoted:

For EVERY youtube video, I always open the video and then immediately punch the slider bar to about 30 percent. For example, in this video, it should have just started at :40. Everything before :40 was a waste. This holds true for nearly every video in the universe.

Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that crowdsourced video outlines can vastly improve understanding among learners. In other words, user-generated Sparknotes for massively open online courses (MOOCs), and other forms of video education can really improve users’ understanding of the material.

To prove that, the college developed its own system for annotating videos. They decided to break up lessons into discrete “subgoals,” which were labeled on Crowdy, a site developed by Juho Kim, a graduate student at MIT. The site works by grabbing instructional YouTube videos from Khan Academy and other e-learning sites and stopping the user periodically to review the segment of the video they just watched. After enough users answer, Kim pools the data together and comes up with a consensus, generating the subgoal label.

Kim told MIT that “It’s really hard to find the exact spots that you want to watch. You end up scrubbing on the timeline carefully and looking at thumbnails.” And because you can’t dog-ear parts of a video like you can a book, there’s an inherent problem with trying to speed-watch an instructional video.

The purpose of subgoal labeling was, then, to break the video material down into more sensible, hierarchical how-tos. Baking a cake, for example, would have have subgoals dealing with wet ingredients and dry ingredients, Kim said.

Subgoal labeling turned out to be a big success for users, and that mode of thinking transferred to newer tasks beyond the initial one.

“Immediately [after the first task], we asked people to attempt another problem, and we found that the people who got the subgoal labels attempted more steps and got them right more often, and they also took less time,” said Mark Guzdial, a professor at Georgia Tech who’s who’s had a hand in similar research for the past five years.

“When we asked them to try a new problem that they’d never seen before, 50 percent of the subgoal people did it correctly, and less than 10 percent of the people who didn’t get subgoals did that correctly,” he said.

As to how or whether or not MIT will pass this along to its own MOOCs has yet to be determined. But with people who are pressed for time, as some MOOC enrollees are bound to be, it’s safe to say course materials are better crunched smarter, not harder.