Online Learning 2.0: Easy Animation for Teaching

Why animation?

The first thing I look for when I visit a new website is a short video describing what the organization or person does. If I don’t see a video, I consider the site amateurish.

Online teaching is no different from other forms of communication. The best communicators take advantage of their medium’s strengths to reach their audience. The Web is a fundamentally visual medium, and videos use this fact to capture our interest.

Plus, a teacher must grab the student’s attention right away to motivate the learning, and nothing grabs interest as quickly and easily as animation. It may sound exotic, but new (and cheap) software has made animation simple to produce. In fact, those clever animated videos you see on company websites were created in-house with off-the-shelf programs, not by professionals in studios.

Animation in education
Animated videos are an ideal way to introduce a topic and open the student’s mind to learning. A three-to-five-minute animation at the beginning of a module, describing what will be covered, what to look for, and why the topic is important, will draw your students into the content. Students can also create animated videos for class projects, including teaching modules that can be added to the class content itself, as I described in the May Online Classroom article “Turn Your Students into Teachers.”

Perhaps best of all, faculty can use animations to describe the class to potential students. One of the oddest aspects of academia is the complete disconnect between how faculty describe themselves and what students want to know. Faculty profiles universally focus on the teacher’s credentials (degrees and publications). But students have no interest in the PhD-granting school of the faculty member and couldn’t understand the titles of most of his or her publications even if they cared. It’s like going to Dell’s website to shop for a computer and getting nothing but photos of the factories and descriptions of how the computers were built.

Students are interested in what the class will be like. How does the faculty member teach—by lecture, discussion, lots of videos, etc.? What is the instructor’s teaching philosophy? What can students expect to experience in the class?

A better use of the profile space is to post short videos describing your teaching methods and courses. Don’t waste time on boring topics such as the grading system, list of assignments, etc.—students can get those things from the syllabus. Describe what makes a class interesting or important. How will you teach it? What will the students get from it? How will the class benefit the student? These videos can also be posted at the beginning of an online course to generate enthusiasm for the course and demonstrate your genuine interest in student learning.

Making animations
Today’s animation software is simple to learn and produces surprisingly high-quality content. The systems basically provide a canvas on which the user pulls in elements from a preloaded gallery or images found on the Web. Grab-and-drop procedures direct how the elements move around the canvas, and a timeline allows the creator to determine the speed of movements and their order. Everything is narrated by a voice soundtrack.

Below are the best systems available, along with some content examples. Some produce cartoon animations, while others generate stop-action videos, like the great Common Craft tutorials that are so popular. My personal favorite is VideoScribe, which produces Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce–type animations of a hand drawing images, plus voice-over.

All the programs listed below are either free or very inexpensive. Some can be downloaded to your desktop, while others have the user create the animation on a website. Many are apps for an iPad or other tablet, which is often the easiest way to make animations.

If you make an animation, start by creating your voice narration with a product such as Audacity ( The narration comes before the imagery because it establishes the pacing of your story. Load the narration to your software and then layer the imagery on top of it. I don’t even plan the imagery ahead of time. I just play the narration and grab whatever best illustrates what I am saying as I go along.

( A software download that shows an image of a hand drawing whatever you put on the canvas, be it from the gallery or your own content. It’s easy to load content from the outside, though it’s better to use basic shapes or logos rather than more detailed images, because the drawing effect is not as attractive with detailed images. Here’s an example: 

Wideo ( Similar to VideoScribe except the work is done online, meaning that there is no software to download. It’s also free, whereas VideoScribe is free only for the first seven days.

Animation Desk ( Similar to VideoScribe and Wideo but is a free iPad app. Create your animations by dragging in images or drawing on the iPad screen with your finger. The results can be downloaded to YouTube.

GoAnimate ( and Xtranormal ( Both systems allow you to create cartoon animations on their websites, using prestocked characters. You can either upload your own narration or type the narration for the characters to speak. Xtranormal was even used to create a Geico commercial.

  • Napoleon: Napoleon described by various historical figures on Xtranormal.
  • Animation for Education: Short blurb on animation that I created using GoAnimate for a Magna course.

John Orlando has 15 years in online education, mostly learning by trial and error. He helped develop and lead online learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University and has taught faculty how to teach online as well as to use technology in their face-to-face teaching. He serves on the Online Classroom editorial advisory board.

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