The YouTube phenomenon, and some implications for educators

Possibly I am stating the obvious here, but it seems to me that YouTube may become the most important piece of educational technology we have. For some time now, I have been growing more used to using YouTube as a reference resource when I need something explained to me. I increasingly use videos in class to help my teaching. My children refer to it routinely.

However, I was forced to reflect more consciously on the significance of this when I watched (on YouTube, naturally) a presentation by anthropologist and tech education rock star Michael Wesch to the Library of Congress. Professor Wesch is a good presenter and gifted storyteller and the story he tells is fascinating. The video is nearly an hour long, but I thoroughly recommend it.

I love the story he tells to illustrate the moment when video sharing came of age. I dimly remember a catchy pop song in Romanian by a group called O-Zone. I seem to recall it cropped up on some list of the most ridiculous pop videos of all time, as it features the band dancing on the wing of an aeroplane. However, the real significance of this song was what happened when an 18-year old in New Jersey called Gary Brolsma sat down in front of his webcam and danced, lip-synched and generally messed about to this song. He could hardly have known he was creating a slice of internet history.

I have watched Mr Brolsma’s video more than once and I have to admit I can see why it was such a sensation. His enthusiasm and complete lack of self-consciousness is oddly compelling. In the days before YouTube, the video went viral and, according to our usual sources, has now been viewed over 700 million times. This puts him comfortably ahead of Justin Bieber. Even more intriguingly, countless people started making tribute videos using the same song and imitating his moves. People weren’t just watching the video; they were becoming part of the movement. Wesch memorable described Gary Brolsma as “the first guy on the dance floor at this global mixer”. We probably still aren’t quite sure what was going on here, but there was no question that something important had changed.

There is no doubting the power of video sharing and there is no doubting its power and potential for education (look no further than Khan Academy for more illustrations). Video provides an immediacy and power that is hard to achieve with text or audio. This makes me wonder whether at least the basics of making and sharing videos really needs to be part of the standard toolkit of educators. Using screen capture tools and microphones, this does not have to be complex (my son made videos using Stupeflix without even using a camera when he was eight), but obviously as skills develop we can learn to add music, editing and other features. Maybe one day our educational videos can top the Technorati charts, the way Wesch’s The Machine is Us/ing Us did for a time.

This will not only give another tool to educate, it will also help us to understand the video-sharing phenomenon much better. In his lecture, Prof Wesch discusses the concept in anthropology of “participant observation”. The idea is that you can only really understand something by participating in it. It is a concept he memorably illustrated with his fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, where he performed ceremonies with local people in full costume. This was the only way to even begin to understand what the ceremony was about.

It is a valuable concept. It is one of the reasons I started blogging in the first place – I thought it was a good way to understand social media. Prof Wesch uses “participant observation” in his approach to understanding YouTube – making and sharing videos is a core part of what he and his students do. Increasingly, we may all need to follow his lead.

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Filed under H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates

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