Learning from Learning from YouTube mid-way

October 29, 2007

Mid-way through the semester, and I’m pleased to report how much we’ve actually learned, albeit experientially, through doing (and not doing) while stuck in all that is powerful and inane on YouTube. Every failure has been a learning experience, although organized by frustration and felt within contained chaos. Of course, I set out to run this class so that such failures would help make clear the costs (and benefits) of our rapid, giddy acceptance of new digital environments without a concurrent set of criticisms and demands about best practices for making use of this most democratic distributor, platform, and archive of moving images.

And now, just 6 weeks in, the criticisms are being well made: about public scrutiny and the ridicule of the mainstream media (leading to analysis of the role of fame and celebrity in YouTube culture); the disruptive additions of hundreds of non-class videos and comments on our class-site (leading to analysis about the making-public of the once-private on YouTube); our inability to interact in real-time, in a central space, and the site’s other weaknesses around finding and linking material (leading to analysis about what is intentionally not-well-made on a site that functions very well for the relay of entertainment); and a more keen awareness of how censorship and corporations function well on the site while community and art do not. We’ve also deduced that there are two YouTubes: the mainstream one made and maintained by Google and millions of users out to waste some time, and the innumerable experiments in form, content, behavior, and community that fall outside the logic of entertainment, advertisements, popular culture, hits, numbers, and favorites. See one and the other becomes less visible; ask a question of the other and learn little of use to understand the first. Our class falls into the second category: unseen by most, unattended to by the site’s architecture and poorly supported, barely getting by but learning nevertheless.

All this has contributed to the class’s clarity about YouTube’s ineffectual structure for higher learning even as it does other things well. In an attempt to mirror the architecture of YouTube, this “student-led” course, open to user-created flexibility and innovation, is still organized by my friendly but controlling vision and parameters. And from this controlled chaos the strengths and limitations of contemporary learning occuring digitally, publicly, visually, and in corporate-owned environments is being lived and then theorized through this doing. The students have posted their first research projects as well as mid-terms about what they’ve learned: they are systematically naming the structures, methods, limits and strengths of YouTube just as they are beginning to master its language, which is to say, we’re beginning to see a variety of strategies towards the illustrated lecture. Pressing the students to express critical content through short videos that use YouTube’s vernacular has proved to be one of the real successes of the experiment, as it is clear that over the next few years they will inhabit a culture where rich and necessary communication will occur visually, as well through the written word. They’re taking preliminary steps towards complex uses of this form of communication. Although the students had a variety of production skills going into the class (as is true for YouTubers as a whole), half-way through the class they have hacked the YouTube video to express complicated analyses of YouTube itself.

And from their work I have learned, too. About teaching, primarily. I have found that seven binaries are being disturbed during this pedagogic experiment, leading to unsettling and mostly non-productive alterations in the ways that we have typically taught and learned in higher education: public/private; amateur/expert; democratic/corporate; structured/anarchic; community/individual; entertainment/occupation; flow/depth. I hope to discuss the difficulties for teaching inspired by these up-ended binaries in later posts.
But for now, I need to attend to the more urgent fact that I am uncertain where we are going to go and what we are going to do. This is a scary time for me, as the professor, in and out of control, with students who want and yet disdain discipline (in pursuit, they say, of “fun” but ever fearful of grades), and with primarily failure as our guide. The 2nd half of the class is intentionally and completely unscripted. I expect we will choose to go off YouTube, to do some traditional research and learning, bring in specialists, read some post-modern and new media theory, turn it into a more regular class where “real” or let’s say, more traditional learning can occur. But some of the students have begged us to stick out the experiment, to consider and propose better practices for what learning in and through corporate-controlled entertainment might look like.

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