Learning from Video Lectures

Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.
Isaac Asimov

One reason why I do not have much time at the moment is that I am taking a few courses at Coursera. So far, Gamification, Securing Digital Democracy, and Statistics One all are very interesting. Great lecturers, each with their own style.

However, I find learning from video lectures difficult, so I played around a little and found the following solution. It requires

I found it helpful to:

  • keep the downloaded videos in a separate DEVONthink database, together with slides (if available) and other course notes. The amount of material can become quite large if you take multiple courses. Given that no special DEVONthink features are used, the normal file/folder system works as well.
  • use a dedicated Circus Ponies Notebook file for all the courses, with one outliner page for each course. On this page I do the notes about the course. The hierarchical structure allows me to quickly resort the material in a way I can work with (depending on the course).
  • Watching the video works well if:
    • you switch between the video in VLC and Circus Ponies Notebook with cmd + tab — you can leave the fingers on the keyboard and quickly jot down notes
    • use SPACE to pause the video when you need to write something up
    • you configure VLCs hotkeys under “Preferences” – “Hotkeys” so that a “very short backwards jump” is “f”, “short backwards jump” is “g”, “medium backwards jump” is “h” — this replaces some hotkeys but it allows you to quickly jump back if you missed something without having to fiddle around with the progress slider (make sure you restart vlc after saving the new hotkeys, prior to quitting and reopening vlc they did not work)
    • use the Screenshot function of VLC (alt + cmd + s on the Mac) to get a copy of a slide you want to put into your Circus Ponies Notebook outline — having the folder where the screenshot ends up visible on the screen is a great help, as it deleting the file immediately after it is copied into Circus Ponies Notebook. I usually type the information I want to remember, as you can do more with pieces of text (the LEGO bricks to build something from them 😉 ).
  • sort the Circus Ponies Notebook outline after each lecture to make sure that you can deal with the information you have jotted down later
Watching a video and jotting down some information — the folder below is where the screenshots end up, a dedicated folder was used later.

So far it works very well and the Outline is a great help when it comes to dealing with quizzes and assignments.


  1. Thanks for sharing. In my searchings I often land back on your website.
    Often times it seems I’m walking the same path. Without knowing.

    I’ve been looking for software capable of bookmarking video course material. To me it would be perfect if I could take note (e.g. Circus Ponies, but I use Emacs’s Orgmode) and paste in a link to the specific time / bookmark in the course material.

    Found a lot of information, but few kept their promise.
    Preferably it should be multi OS capable.

    I also use VLC on all platforms a lot. But I’ve found XBMC the one to be able to do it. I haven’t done extended testing, but installed XBMC on my MacBook, installing is a breeze, and the bookmarks really work.
    So far I’ve not gone through thorough testing. As XBMC is quite a multi capable beast, this might lead further than what I am prepared to input.
    I think the bookmarks are kind of a playlist that is kept ‘somewhere’ relative to the video file.
    I’d like to test if I can save it externally, say to a txt file, perhaps inside an orgmode or Circus Ponies file, and see if the relative links are still functioning.

    Are you using any kind of video bookmarking?



  2. Hoi Erwin,

    thank you for the tool-tip — I didn’t know xbmc — because I don’t use video bookmarking.

    Hmmm … on YouTube you can copy a link that includes the point where you were, but this would not be feasible for me for some reasons (mostly that I do not have Internet access everywhere I am). When I find something interesting in a video, I take screenshots or make notes — much easier to search and deal with than the video itself.

    Some online videos (e.g., many courses on Coursera, many TED Talks) offer the transcript (on TED also with the ability to jump to that point in the video, same with Khan Academy), so this is a way to get the transcript quickly. On the other hand I think making notes yourself aids in learning — if you also (re-)structure your notes. Worked very well for the Coursera Gamification course — on the other hand this takes a lot of time.

    One last thing — if there is really an impressive moment in a video, something I think I could use in the future (e.g., for a presentation), I simply edit the video and cut it down to this moment (e.g,. with QuickTime).

    All the best


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