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.

  • […] Juhasz has also writ­ten up her expe­ri­ences of Teach­ing on YouTube. Pos­si­bly relat­ed posts: (auto­mat­i­cal­ly generated)Embedding YouTube Videos in Your WordPress.com […]

  • 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

  • […] More fac­ul­ty are using free open online tools such as Face­book, Twit­ter, Blog­ger, iTune­sU and YouTube to get stu­dents con­nect­ing, cre­at­ing and shar­ing online. Still con­tro­ver­sial but it’s […]

  • […] have writ­ten and been inter­viewed exten­sive­ly (on YouTube and else­where) about what I learned there, often from my stu­dents’ amaz­ing videos, and this work has […]

  • […] about and teach­ing the fas­ci­nat­ing work of Alexan­dra Juhasz, who has gained fame as a media schol­ar who took an ear­ly inter­est in YouTube, and who taught per­haps the first ever col­lege course about and on YouTube (146). Juhasz’s 2009 […]

  • 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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