If you ever wondered whether professional scientists are skeptical about some of the incredibly fun, attractive and brief online videos that purport to explain scientific principles in a few minutes, you’d be right.
Derek Muller completed his doctoral dissertation by researching the question of what makes for effective multimedia to teach physics. Muller curates the science blog Veritasium and received his Ph.D. from the University of Sydney in 2008.
It’s no small irony that Muller’s argument, that online instructional videos don’t work, has reached its biggest audience in the form of an online video. He launches right in, lecture style, with a gentle attack on the Khan Academy, which has famously flooded the Internet with free instructional videos on every subject from arithmetic to finance.
While praising the academy’s founder, Salman Khan, for his teaching and speaking talent, Muller contends that students actually don’t learn anything from science videos in general.
In experiments, he asked subjects to describe the force acting upon a ball when a juggler tosses it into the air. Then he showed them a short video that explained gravitational force.
In tests taken after watching the video, subjects provided essentially the same description as before. Subjects said they didn’t pay attention to the video because they thought they already knew the answer. If anything, the video only made them more confident about their own ideas.
Science instructional videos, Muller argues, shouldn’t just explain correct information, but should tackle misconceptions as well. He practices this approach in his own work, like this film about weightlessness in the space station. Having to work harder to think through why an idea is wrong, he says, is just as important as being told what’s right.
Kate Rix is an Oakland-based freelance writer. See more of her work at katerixwriter.com.