Teaching on YouTube

Today, we have a guest feature by Alexandra Juhasz, Professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College, in Claremont, CA. This piece consolidates lengthier blog entries about a course she ran on YouTube, called “Learning from YouTube,” in Fall 2007. The whole goal was to better understand this new media/cultural phenomenon, and how it can be used in the classroom. How did she set up this class? And what did she learn? Find out below. Take it away Alexandra (and feel free to check out our YouTube playlist as well as our piece, 60 Smart Video Collections on YouTube) ….

I decided to teach a course about YouTube to better understand this recent and massive media/cultural phenomenon, given that I had been studiously ignoring it (even as I recognized its significance) because every time I went there, I was seriously underwhelmed by what I saw: interchangeable, bite-sized, formulaic videos referring either to popular culture or personal pain/pleasure. I called them video slogans: pithy, precise, rousing calls to action or consumption, or action as consumption. I was certain, however, that there must be video, in this vast sea, that would satisfy even my lofty standards, and figured my students (given their greater facility with a life-on-line) probably knew better than I how to navigate the site.

Learning From YouTube was my first truly “student led” course: we would determine the important themes and relevant methods together. I had decided that I wanted the course to primarily consider how web 2.0 (in this case, specifically YouTube) is radically altering the conditions of learning (what, where, when, how we have access to information). Given that college students are rarely asked to consider the meta-questions of how they learn, on top of what they are learning, I thought it would be pedagogically useful for the form of the course to mirror YouTube’s structures for learning, like its amateur-led pedagogy. Yes, on YouTube there is a great deal of user control, but this is within a limited and also highly limiting set of tools. So, I did set forth the rule that all the learning for the course had to be on and about YouTube. While this constraint was clearly artificial, and perhaps misleading about how YouTube is used in connection with a host of other media platforms which complement its functionality, it did allow us to become critically aware of the constraints of its architecture for our atypical goals of higher education. Thus, all assignments had to be produced as YouTube comments or videos, all research had to be conducted within its pages, and all classes were taped and put on to YouTube. This gimmick, plus a press release, made the course sexy enough to catch the eye of the media, mainstream and otherwise, allowing for an exhausting, but self-reflexive lesson in the role and value of media attention within social networking. Beyond this, students quickly realized how well trained they actually are to do academic work with the word—their expertise—and how poor is their media-production literacy (there were no media production skills required for the course as there are not on YouTube). It is hard to get a paper into 500 characters, and translating it into 10 minutes of video demands real skills in creative translation, or artful summary, within word, image, sound, and their layering.

In this way, the methods and materials for the course were selected by the students, who were forced by me to be atypically creative and responsible, successfully inventing or recycling a wide range of methodology for academic research and “writing” within my tough constraints. Surprisingly, the structure of the course ended up quite coherent: looking first at the forms, uses and content; then the function of popularity; and finally the structures and economics of the site. Furthermore, and quite impressively given their lack of skills and serious initial qualms, the students devised a series of methods to do their academic assignments in the form of video. I would briefly characterize these styles of work as: word-reliant, the illustrated summary, and the YouTube hack, where academic content is wedged into a standard YouTube vernacular (music video, How To, or advertisement).

Thinking through education on YouTube, after teaching a class using its many resources and even greater limitations, I found that the specificity of the site, and some of the features more generally of Web 2.0, served to unsettle six binaries that typically structure the academic classroom. As these rigid binaries dismantle, the nature of teaching and learning shifts (I’d say for the worse). I’d like to briefly name and explain these dismantling binaries here (with illustrative clips from some course videos).

1. Public/Private: The elite liberal arts classroom, usually (or at least ideally) depends upon an intimate and “safe” gathering of high-paying, and carefully selected students, to create a communal pedagogy. In my typical Pitzer College classroom, once doors are closed, students are asked to publicly contribute their interpretations, and sometimes personal experience or knowledge, always knowing that they are not experts, but are certainly experts-in-training. The steady construction of a confidence of voice, particularly in relaying a complex analysis, is one of the “services” we professors hope to provide. Students, often feeling vulnerable in the eyes of their classmates and their esteemed professor, are challenged to add their voices to the building dialogue, one in which they are an active, continuing member. Ever aware of the power dynamics that structure the classroom, allowing some to speak with comfort and others not, I engage in strategies to alter the “safety” of the space. Needless to say, these lofty dynamics begin to radically shift when anyone and everyone can see and also participate. During the class, students were routinely judged by critical YouTube viewers who we would never see or know, who may or may not be aware of the history of our conversations, or the subtle dynamics in the room. While access grew, the disciplining structures in place in a closed classroom (attendance, grading, community responsibility) could not insure that our outside viewers were as committed and attentive as were we. It was interesting to me to see the strength of the students’ desires to enforce the privacy of the classroom. This only the first example of their profound need to bring discipline to a class where I had given much of it away.

2. Aural/Visual: The capacity to express ideas through words is almost entirely closed down on YouTube where both the 500 character limit, and the sandlot culture of web-expression, produces a dumbing-down within written expression more or less impossible to improve upon. The place to speak and be heard on YouTube is through video: which easily links sounds, language, and images. However, most newly empowered videomakers on YouTube are not educated or adept in the language of images, and thus depend on the relaying of their recorded words, primarily through the talking-head or rant of the vlog. Meanwhile, professional content on YouTube abounds. “Corporate” videos look good— like mainstream media—because they are made by professionals, are stolen from TV, or are re-cut movies. They express ideas about the products of mainstream culture, in the music-driven, quickly-edited, glossy, slogan-like vernacular of music videos, commercials, and comix. They consolidate ideas into icons; meaning is lost to feeling. Vlogs depend upon the intimate communication of the spoken word. Corporate videos are driven by strong images, sounds, and sentiments. This underscores how YouTube is not the level or uniform playing field people want to pretend it to be. By reifying the distinctions between the amateur and the professional, the personal and the social, in both form and content, YouTube currently maintains (not democratizes) operating distinctions about who owns culture. A people’s forum but not a revolution, YouTube video manifests the deep hold of corporate culture on our psyches, re-establishing that we are most at home as consumers (even when we are producers).

3. Body/Digital: Teaching and learning depend upon presence: the forceful, dynamic, inspiring performance of the teacher, the alert attention and participation of the student. While in a typical classroom this may not function in the ideal sense—the professor can be uninspiring or uninspired and the students may be there in body but not in mind—the YouTube classroom diminishes this further, evaporating the powers of eye contact and professorial censure (notice the role of discipline again), as well as the expressions of boredom or enthusiasm on the bodies of students. When we attempted on-line classes through YouTube, they simply fizzled and died. There is something in the shared exchange that creates an atmosphere for education that is not possible on this site.

4. Amateur/Expert: On YouTube, amateurs rule, experts are deflated, and authority is flattened. While it is exciting to hear from new and varied people, and while this undoubtedly widens and opens our knowledge-base, it is difficult to learn in an environment where vying opinions rule, where data is helter-skelter and hard to locate, and where no one can take the lead. Again, the significance of discipline within the academic setting proves the rule. Without it, ideas stay vague and dispersed, there is no system for evaluation, and you can’t find things or build upon them.

5. Entertainment/Education: Today’s students, schooled on YouTube, iphones, and Wiis, want their information relayed with ease and fun: they want it pleasurable, simplified, and funny. They don’t want to be bored; even as they are always distracted. They want school to speak to them in the language they like and know and deserve. While I’m the first to admit that a good professor makes “hard” information understandable, this does not mean that I do not expect my students to take pleasure in the rigorous work of understanding it. While I have always been aware that I am a performer, entertaining my students while sneaking in critical theory, avant-garde forms, and radical politics, much of what I perform is the delight and beauty of the complex: the life of the mind, the work of the artist, the experience of the counter-culture. I am not interested teaching as a re-performing of the dumbing-down of our culture.

6. Control/Chaos: The college classroom is a disciplined space where knowledge moves in a formal and structured routine familiar to all the players. While the critical classroom begins to alter this script by giving more power to students, and allowing knowledge to be created dynamically, this is not the random chaos of information and power which is YouTube. For effective education, structure remains paramount so as to control conversation, to allow ideas to build in succession permitting things to grow steadily more complex, to be able to find things once and then again.

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  • Magdalena says:

    “For effective education, structure remains paramount so as to control conversation, to allow ideas to build in succession permitting things to grow steadily more complex, to be able to find things once and then again.” This is a very traditional view of learning. I guess certain elite structures never change. The expert—> controls conversation —-> assesses input—-> filters nonsense out—–> implicitly or explicitly assigns “+” “-” values —-> complexifies and synthesizes —-> requests feedback that matches his/her values—> finds that students have learned the right answers. (:-) LOL

  • WebGrl08 says:

    Now that you have a handle on YouTube technology, you should consider making your web pages printable so that I could share this information with colleagues. Just a suggestion.

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  • Dien Trinh says:

    Please show me how to continue viewing a movie with many parts = chapters ( with or without marked by producer) from first to the last without having to click for next screen
    Dien Trinh

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  • Richard says:

    ‘Teaching’ with nothing but video would be a bit like baking a cake with nothing but sugar. The correct recipe surely calls for more ingredients. Even though a ‘sugar only’ cake may satisfy some … there will be no true sustinence in it. You tube should be regarded as an ‘ingredient’, but not ‘the cake’itself. Yours was an intersting exercise though.

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