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While animation used to be the purview of professional studios, today software like Vyond makes it easy for those with no animation skills at all. I design and teach an online college-readiness course that includes a wide variety of engaging content; however, students continue to insist that the animated videos help them the most. In addition, animations can have a staying power that other course content simply can’t. Given the unique nature of animated content, I can still use the videos I created six years ago, whereas all other live-action videos and interactive content quickly become outdated and require radical revision over the years. There are just a few steps to follow in making animations for your courses.

Identifying opportunities for animated content

If you are looking for places to incorporate more animated content in your course, here are some options:

Text. Do you have a large block of text in your course—text-heavy explanations or long assignment instructions? Transform some of that into animated content. For example, I recently reimagined the “How to Write a College Research Paper” instructions inside our course by creating four short animated videos to communicate key parts of the content: paper titles, introductory paragraphs, body paragraphs, and conclusions. Not only do these embedded animated videos help visually break up the text, but they also give students a whimsical way to learn and experience the information.

Concepts. What complex concept intimidates or confuses your students? An animation can demystify it and make it more approachable. For instance, I introduce students to two different note-taking strategies, both of which can seem a bit overwhelming at first. So, rather than simply providing the texts that explain the note-taking strategies and then creating an assessment so that students can apply these strategies, I made an animated video for each one, introducing the relevance and basics of the strategies so that students understand the big picture before reading the specifics about each strategy in the longer texts.

Awkward or boring content. Is there an awkward topic or boring moment where authentic student engagement seems impossible? An animation can help! For example, academic integrity is crucial in the college setting, yet it is such a difficult topic to tackle in an effective, relevant way. Because of this, I created three different academic misconduct scenario videos and embedded them in an Articulate 360 interactive. After viewing each animation, students respond to a series of questions that help them ascertain why academic integrity is important and how it ultimately isn’t worth it to compromise their integrity. Rather than simply linking to our university’s academic honor code and insisting on its importance, or simply trying to scare students with all the potential consequences for misconduct, we try to invite them into three fictional worlds that help them wrestle with the real-life temptations and implications of cheating in college.

Building an animation with Vyond

Vyond is a user-friendly, cloud-based video animation tool that makes creating animations fun and simple. You can create animations from scratch (by manually selecting all the characters, props, movements, etc.) on your own, or you can start with one of the program’s ready-to-use templates. Vyond offers a free 14-day trial, and although it costs more than other animation tools, I have found that the level of customization it offers is worth it.

Because Vyond provides such a wide variety of options, it can feel overwhelming to start the animated-building process, especially if you haven’t created one before. I suggest wrestling with these questions before building an animation so that you have a clear purpose and direction when you begin:

  1. What specific skill or concept do I want students to learn from this video? In an online course, the goal is not simply entertainment, so how will this animation help students achieve one or more learning objectives?
  2. How does this video fit into the larger context of the module? This animation will be part of a larger story, and understanding its placement within your course will help you determine the appropriate scope for the video.
  3. How do I want students to feel during or after viewing this animation? Animations present a unique way to ease anxiety, engage the imagination, and invite students into playful worlds that do not fully exists in other parts of your online course. Student’s feelings are crucial and relevant here, and it is important to intentionally engage appropriate emotions.
  4. What are two different ways I could present this topic or concept as a story? There is no formulaic way to build an animation, but it is helpful to think of it taking a narrative form, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It is easy to assume there is only one way to tell the story, so challenging yourself to come up with two ways will force you to realize that you have more options than you tend to assume.
  5. Which characters, icons, graphics, and music help me achieve the goal? An awareness and appreciation for your students’ age, backgrounds, experiences, goals, and interests can inform these choices.

Editing and revising your animation

As you build the animation, here are some additional tips:

  1. Select your music carefully, considering ways that it can help ease student anxiety about a topic. Vyond provides numerous audio track options, so take the time to preview multiple tracks before adding one to your video. Anxiety continues to plague Gen Z students for a variety of reasons, so selecting music that both complements the content and creates peace is key.
  2. Monitor the pace of your animation. In Vyond, you can determine how long each item lingers on the screen, so preview your animation multiple times to make sure students can read and digest all the content on the screen without feeling too rushed. At the same time, the animation should not move so slowly that it diminishes momentum or interest.
  3. Playfulness is good! No matter what content you are presenting in the animation, don’t take yourself or your content too seriously. When possible, allow animation and graphics to communicate and establish meaning, and do not force a lot of text into the animation.
  4. Keep the total length short. It will be tempting to try and accomplish a lot in one animation, but limiting it to two minutes or less will force you to build a more effective animation. Using less time will mean that you need to use that time more wisely!
  5. Select templates thoughtfully. Using similar colors or themes can be helpful, especially if you are looking for ways to visually showcase how certain ideas or skills are connected between various animations. But try using different colors, themes, and templates for each new module, topic, or concept to keep students interested and engaged.

As you can see, creating your own effective, meaningful animated content requires intentionality, but it is possible. As the instructor, you are the expert on both your subject matter and your students, meaning that you are best positioned to develop effective animations for your course.

Inviting students into animated worlds that are simple and substantive is more than an attempt to increase student engagement or promote escapism. Instead, it is an opportunity to stimulate imaginations and allow learning to happen when it happens best: when students are confident, relaxed, safe, and delighted.

Stefanie Buckner, MA, is an instructor of college readiness at The University of Alabama.