In my experience, what’s cool is one step ahead of what’s useful, and since learning technologists like to inhabit the “what’s cool” field, they are two steps ahead of the academics they support, rather than one step ahead. Naturally that’s a coarse generalisation. There has to be a little “leading edge” research, but it seems to attract more funding and effort than is useful for front-line academics, hence this deliberately provocative post.
Why am I whining about this now? Well, what’s cool right now is Second Life. I keep hearing of events and Facebook groups for “Second Life educators”, and I’ve been to two presentations recently that helpfully demystified SL. I expect that some sort of virtual world will be seriously mainstream in the future, maybe even a killer app for education, but I’m sure that it will be very different from SL, which we’ll remember the way we now look back at crushed velvet curtains and lava lamps.
As technologists charge towards the leading edge, might they again be missing out on the real revolution; less sexy, but a more historic sea-change in how students learn. Clue: look at what students are actually using the Internet for. I’m talking about video sharing and, particularly at this point in time, YouTube.
“Yeuch” (and/or “Yawn”), you’ll hear, “YouTube isn’t for intellectuals“, which is as mad as saying that books aren’t for intellectuals. Seek brainy content and you shall find. Right now there are the TED talks – some of the most inspiring and engaging intellectual content on the web. NobelPrize.org is uploading its prize winner lectures. Richard Wiseman is using magic to get people excited about perceptual psychology. Video can be very low-tech but have meaty intellectual content: Greg Craven is a teacher creating dozens of short videos in an ongoing debate with his viewers about the science of climate change, with massive success in terms of views and coverage. It’s low-cost, non-leading edge technology that enables this to happen.
When we at the Economics Network had author Tim Harford as a conference keynote, we put video segments of his talk in YT. Harford linked the videos from his blog, and within days we had thousands of hits, in addition to the thousands of direct downloads from the site. The people who follow Harford’s blog are likely to be very close to our target audience. By contrast, getting a couple of hundred hits a month for a textual case study would be good by our standards.
Right now, there are videos on YT with millions of hits that consist only of a textual essay read out by a computer voice. How many hits would there be on the same essay posted as plain text? What’s more, viewers seem to engage with, and have attitudes changed by, the arguments in that text.
So there’s something specially accessible about YT vids (and will be for DailyMotion and Vimeo vids, or whatever the next cool site is). Not only can you watch them in most web browsers, you can find and view them on the iPhone or iPod Touch, on some digital TV services. You can embed them in your own blog. People are even sharing audio files by combining them with a still image and uploading the result as a video, since that seems to more convenient for users than just posting the MP3.
Are academics being helped by learning technologists into this online video age, or are the resources being put into virtual-world research which before long will seem very quaint? I’ve no systematic evidence, but the excitement about SL seems disproportionate to its actual usefulness for universities.