Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Other YouTube

ToDo & Sunday Thought Departments
Small Print Warning: some curriculum theory from a previous life—cleverly obscured—lies ahead. Please ignore. :-)

Ok, we all know about YouTube--it is that silly-fascinating site where dogs ride skateboards and people spend a lot of time crying for a fascinated public.

Pure entertainment--in the bad sense of fascinatingly mindless distracting pablum.

But there is the other YouTube.

That YouTube that has created a brand new bottom-up educational format: the short video instruction. It's fun, it's popular, it works and it's what entertainment can be in its best sense: a fascinatingly engaging way to learn. Most educational video shorts—let's call them "instructables" so we have a less akward handle—are somewhere between two and six minutes long. They focus on some small bit of "doing" like making a nifty techno-toy, or showing a dance move, or throwing a pot on the wheel. The producers are most often advanced users and the consumers anyone who wants to learn "how."

You might have watched some of these but didn't have a category to put them in. Here is a nice little example for someone for whom the description doesn't strike a cord:

That "instructable" is an example of "throwing off the hump." Potters do that when they want to make a series of similar small items. It's not an easy thing to describe--books, blackboards, and lecture-halls are not good mediums to convey that variety of learning. It's the sort of thing that is more usefully "shown." There is a whole class of things that we'd like to teach which are better shown than described; things that are better experienced than conventionally taught. Video isn't perfect but these extremely short pieces of "conveyed experience" are very, very useful to the learner. The learner can see multiple examples (e.g.: another throwing off the hump). They are repeatable and they are deep. —Repeatable: if you didn't see how he finished off the rim, watch it again. They are deep in the sense that by watching it a learner who has had his or her hands in clay can "feel" how thin those walls must be and get a sense for how much "wobble" is tolerated and how many times to "pull" up walls and what to do toward the final curve with each pull. All these things are (inadequately) discussed (at interminable length) in conventional classroom settings as preparation. But advisory rules about wall thickness and pulls are rather direct abstractions from experience whose utility lies in allowing the student to move more quickly and effectively to new experience. They are much better taught after as student has learned to throw a few forms as a way to move toward independent explorations.

(If you can't get into potting, try the Zydeco demo, or the instructions for making cool LED "throwies" and re-read the above paragraph with your example in mind. You could find similar instructables for welding, making lures, cooking creole, or applying makeup. There is a whole DIY section for you to browse. Let your passions rule)

We don't teach by example in schools because we don't have the time. There are too many students in our classes for many of the most effective kinds of instruction to be possible. Instructables approach the one-on-one experience of tutorials. You watch at your own pace, you notice what is meaningful to you, and you can get repeated examples until you "get" the right approach. A real tutorial with the added dimensions of individualized feedback and things like force feedback (holding the students hands against the clay to give the "feel" of the appropriate pressure) would be even more valuable. Even so, instructables are new and valuable form.

This is one of the reasons you should want big bandwidth. To really see some of the details on the potting example you'd want HD-quality videos. I can imagine getting more personalized instruction from afar--if we had the bandwidth. A skilled potter (or master welder) in Lafayette could set up a nice shop and market personalized instruction over the net—if both ends had really big bandwith.

Just for the record: the usefulness of this technique is not, in my judgment, limited to vocational topics or hobbies. Showing and having the student find ways of solving a problem is central to good mathematics instruction. Learning to read is something that has to be shown; letter sounds can pretty much only be "labled" correctly after a student has learned sound out letters by example... Much conventional instruction could be replaced or aided by providing multiple, repeatable, deep examples.

So...something ToDo on this Sunday when you really ought to be at Festivals Acadiens if you are an Acadiana denizen. And something to think about.

PS: Yes, yes...we just got a wheel. What of it? :-)

Update: 7:28: ooops. I just looked at Boing Boing for the first time in weeks and down the list I spoted a nifty link to how to make clear ice cubes. So naturally I followed it (well, naturally for me). The link goes to a site called "instructables!" I thought I had made up that term--but now it seems more likely that I've seen a reference to this site. Which is pretty neat place to visit. (The ice cube link? Right here.)

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