Thoughts on Teaching on YouTube (April 28, 2008)
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
This 2008 blog post was first published on Open Culture, "the best free cultural & educational media on the web." Open Culture had been following and networking my blogging about teaching LFYT, so I asked them if I could submit an article specially written for them as I was attempting to write (and network) concise, systematic lessons from the output and experiences of LFYT 2007. This was another attempt to organize and present the otherwise large and unruly body of student videos made for the class.
Slogans "should be a statement of such merit about a product or service that it is worthy of continuous repetition in advertising, is worthwhile for the public to remember, and is phrased in such a way that the public is likely to remember it."[cit]

Composition/rhetoric is transforming to include competency in new media technologies. Writing studies sometimes now includes the "teaching and learning of language and literacy in multiple contexts and multiple modes, including print, digital, and visual."[cit]
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(First published on Open Culture.)

I decided to teach a course about YouTube to better understand this recent, massive media/cultural phenomenon. I had been studiously ignoring it (even as I recognized its significance) because every time I went there, I was seriously underwhelmed by what I saw: interchangeable, bite-sized, formulaic videos referring either to popular culture or to personal pain/pleasure.

I called them video slogans: pithy, precise, rousing calls to action or consumption, or action as consumption. I was certain, however, that there must be video, in this vast sea, that would satisfy even my lofty standards. And I figured that my students (given their greater facility with a life online) probably knew better than I how to navigate the site.

Learning from YouTube was my first truly "student-led" course. We would determine the important themes and relevant methods together. I had decided that I wanted the course to primarily consider how Web 2.0 (in this case, specifically YouTube) is radically altering the conditions of learning (what, where, when, and how we have access to information).

Given that college students are rarely asked to consider how they learn on top of what they are learning, I thought it would be pedagogically useful for the form of the course to mirror YouTube's structures for learning, like its amateur-led pedagogy.

Yes, on YouTube there is a great deal of user control, but this is within a limited and also highly limiting set of tools. So, I did set forth the rule that all the learning for the course had to exist on and be about YouTube. While this constraint was clearly artificial, and perhaps misleading about how YouTube is used in connection with a host of other media platforms that complement its functionality, it did allow us to become critically aware of the constraints of its architecture for our atypical goals of higher education.

Thus, all assignments had to be produced as YouTube comments or videos, all research had to be conducted within its pages, and all classes were taped and put on to YouTube.

This gimmick, plus a press release, made the course sexy enough to catch the eye of the media (mainstream and otherwise), allowing for an exhausting but self-reflexive lesson in the role and value of media attention within social networking.

Beyond this, students quickly realized how well trained they already are to do academic work using words—their expertise—and how poor their media-production literacy is (there were no media-production skills required for the course as there are none on YouTube). It is hard to get a paper into 500 characters, and translating it into ten minutes of video demands real skills in creative translation, or artful summary, within word, image, sound, and their layering.

In this way, the methods and materials for the course were selected by the students, who were forced by me to be atypically creative and responsible, successfully inventing or recycling a wide range of methodologies for academic research and "writing" within my tough constraints.

Surprisingly, the structure of the course ended up being quite coherent: looking first at the forms, uses, and content; then the function of popularity; and finally the structures and economics of the site.

Furthermore, and quite impressively given their lack of technical skills and serious initial qualms, the students devised a series of methods to do their academic assignments in the form of video. I would briefly characterize these styles of work as: how to or advertisement.

Thinking through education on YouTube, after teaching a class using its many resources and even greater limitations, I found that the specificity of the site, and some of the features more generally of Web 2.0, served to unsettle six binary oppositions that typically structure the academic classroom. As these rigid binary oppositions dismantle, the nature of teaching and learning shifts (I'd say for the worse). These binaries are:

1) public/private

2) aural/visual

3) body/digital

4) amateur/expert

5) entertainment/education

6) control/chaos