Monday, February 06, 2012

Early Indications February 2012 I: Thoughts on video and pedagogy

It's been fascinating to see how fast the phrase "flipping the classroom" has come into discussion after Sal Khan used it in his TED talk from last year. But what does YouTube et al really mean in educational practice? For all the richness of the video resources we are being given, using them in teaching is far from straightforward. (If you've not seen it, here is the link: pedagogical theory notwithstanding -- about which more later -- I'm still incredibly impressed with Khan, and a lot of what follows won't make sense if you don't share the context.)

Insofar as I don't teach primary grades, and don't teach techniques such as linear programming or stochastic inventory mapping, Khan’s methods don't apply to my classroom. However, when people need to review basic concepts (what's a standard deviation? how do you calculate a net present value?), I send them to with usually good results.

Even though Kahn Academy doesn't work for my courses, I've been using online videos for the past 5 years, beginning (if I recall correctly) with Hans Rosling's spellbinding original Gapminder talk:

I'm lucky in that for my courses, there are many talks from many places addressing applicable material such as long tails, algorithms, the Internet of Things, and why people do what they do. Jesse Schell and Dan Pink (with help from the RSA's whiteboard wizard) did particularly noteworthy performances on the latter topic:



In some cases, people who have written books give particularly effective presentations of their ideas. Clay Shirky, for one, has several talks in his portfolio that explain key ideas for my classes; Dan Gilbert and Barry Schwartz have also given persuasive talks that should sell some more of their books.




Behavioral economics also has a great lineup: Dan Ariely, Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman, and Chicago's Richard Thaler begin a long list of stars in the field. Far from the land of cognitive bias, finding and watching all of the good computer science lectures on line can be a full-time occupation: in alphabetical order, such hard-core programs as UC-Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Penn, Stanford, and Washington cover both basic and edge-of-practice topics. Google has captured its share of computational
authorities with videos of guest speakers to the Plex, of course, but the collection also holds lots of surprises: Stephen Pinker's talk has more views than Hillary Clinton, but they both seriously lag David Beckham, Conan O'Brien, and Christopher Hitchens. Noam Chomsky outdraws Tina Fey. And so on.

Google Talks:

Universities and other non-TED institutions are also getting serious about video. To give just a sample, Columbia has lectures on global development from Jeffrey Sachs; Harvard has a full, well-regarded course on Chinese history online as well as lectures on justice from noted political philosopher Michael Sandel; Yale has a great professor
teaching the American civil war in captivating fashion. MIT's video library features some open courseware (lots of courses "only" have lecture notes) but also Benoit Mandelbrot himself teaching fractals. Microsoft posted the Feynman Messenger Lectures from Cornell in 1964.





If you think about sports rather than just watch, the resources are incredible. John Wooden, a national treasure, gave a powerful TED talk in 2001 that will live long after his death. Coach K explains in fascinating detail, at a Milken Institute meeting, how he managed the 2008 Olympic gold medal basketball team. MIT hosts an annual sports analytics conference, basically "life after Moneyball," that features hours and hours of great talks.


Coach K:

MIT sports analytics:

This semester I've taken to playing music videos before class both to get me energized and also to break that awkward silence, especially early in the semester and early in the morning. Students apparently don't know quite what to make of the extreme eclecticism: Stevie Wonder (age 12), Kings of Leon, the Black Keys, and Allison Krauss have made appearances so far. If I can keep the students guessing that's probably a good thing.

Comic relief is readily available. Parodies, fail videos (Boom goes the dynamite), and old-school fashion (read "mullets") can usually draw a chuckle. The Barack roll/Rick roll is still inspired 4 years on. At the other end of the levity spectrum, security threats can be brought home vividly: surveillance video of an unsuccessful suicide bomber in Sri Lanka, Ed Felten's cracking of a Diebold voting machine, and the Bic pen attack on bike locks just can't be duplicated in lectures. If students need perspective or inspiration, that's out there too: Randy Pausch, Steve Jobs, and many others can make a room weepy; students actually cheered for Sal Khan. For exhilaration, Ken Block's stunt driving, wingsuit flying, or sports highlights get the job done.

Wii Fit parody:

Boom goes the dynamite:

Barack roll:



Jobs at Stanford:

Ken Block:


So there's no doubt the content is good and getting even better. The question at some point, becomes "what is our cultural inheritance?" Bob Beamon's amazing long jump from the Mexico City Olympics is now public property, not distant memory. Apple's 1984 ad is remarkably undated. Bruce Springsteen's epic version of Rosalita from 1975 is vivid proof of greatness as it emerges. The solitary figure facing down the tank in Tiananmen Square is still incredible. James Brown's genius and stage presence pop off the screen, even in black and white footage. Just how good were Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird? Take a look. Recent American presidential history can be deftly illustrated by the Saturday Night Live impressions of everyone from Gerald Ford to Sarah Palin. More good, even essential, footage gets uploaded every day.

As a matter of perspective, it's quickly getting to the point where I'm no longer delighted when some rare piece of archival footage is up, but disappointed when it's not. Given such plenty, the question then becomes, how do these rich resources get integrated into a classroom experience?

It's difficult to draw sweeping conclusions, but probably useful to note that four issues complicate matters:

1) A 30 minute video is 30 minutes long
That is to say, video is a linear medium and slicing up a TED talk into an abbreviated version is beyond most people's level of both technical skill and cognitive capacity. Thus the online video takes as long as it takes, unless you cut it off early, which I sometimes do. Skipping to multiple time marks doesn't usually work too well.

2) Bandwidth is not an inalienable right
Even on a high-speed campus network, I have seen sometimes crippling slowdowns. Local copies of streamed videos on USB drives are usually not practical, as often as I've been tempted. As I let class out early those days, the frustration provokes big questions about cloud computing's critical reliance on the network layer.

3) Students are conditioned to watch passively
At one level, it's TV, but in a classroom. So students sit back and relax. Especially without some coaching from the podium, the tools of critical inquiry, not exactly robust with regard to print, are notably weak in a real-time, visually driven environment. Even though many of my videos are stand-up talks rather than Bergman or Scorsese, I notice few students who know how to approach a video as a text for analysis and interpretation. Maybe I should recruit a communications professor to introduce notions of visual reading early in the term.

4) What is the relation of the visiting expert to the resident instructor?
This issue is squarely on my shoulders: once I let this third voice into the classroom conversation, what can or should I DO with it? Sometimes I stop the video and underline something; maybe more of that is indicated. Sometimes I critique the presenter; people can say dumb things on camera, so I point that out from the safety of posterity. Sometimes I basically genuflect, letting the expert have the floor without challenge or elaboration.

Because business students are generally more accustomed to memorization and problem-solving than to interpretation of sometimes indeterminate issues, I'm often at a loss as to how to run discussion of the videos. Sometimes I try to give context: what event is it that we're watching, who is this woman, how did she get this speaking slot, who is this person she seems to be picking a fight with? Other times, the video is shown first, as a springboard to my lecture. In the past, by contrast, I used the videos as dessert, but getting the timing right could be tough. I also felt bad about the lack of class discussion of the videos, but now realize that probably had more to do with the critical viewing skills (or the professor's facilitation skills) than the timing.

Beyond that, I haven't found hard-and-fast rules that always work for weaving video into classroom experience. Now that web video is about 5 years old, one challenge is balancing the evergreen (I never tire of watching Hans Rosling) with the faddish or otherwise temporary (Web 2.0 is getting a bit long in the tooth). Finally, there's the matter of proximity: Facebook and mobile phones are the oxygen we all breathe, and getting analytical leverage on the current technology landscape can be a bit of a challenge. (A great exception that proves the rule is Michael Wesch's anthropological introduction to YouTube, available on YouTube.) This isn't a video issue per se, but it points to the larger question of perspective: when is video a primary source, a piece of original evidence, and when can a video stand outside the phenomenon it analyzes?


These questions won't be solved any time soon, but the great part of this job is that every class is another chance to experiment, to listen to both spoken comments and unspoken body language, and to learn.