On The ‘Youtube Learning’

Two years ago, when I was still working on photovoltaics research and had only started sketching the first version of the Online Educational website Wandida, I met Jonathan Ledgard, former East Africa correspondent of The Economist who was about to start The Future Africa Afrotech Initiative at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne, while remaining Africa correspondent-at-large of The Economist. I told Jonhatan about the difficulty to have academics taking seriously a Youtube-based project, and we discussed the place of Youtube as a learning space, Jonathan told me the story of Julius Yego. Julius Yego is the first Kenyan person to compete in the javelin at the Olympics’ finals. Coming from a country where athleticism equals running, Yego had to train himself for the technically-requiring discipline of javelin trough youtube videos. As of 2011, he still did not have a throwing coach and went to the 2011 All-Africa Games, he became Kenya’s first ever champion in the event. It is only about six months before the Olympics that he would receive his first international-level coached training in Finland. The following video was recorded with him before the 2012 Olympics.

Later, Yego will eventually become a Kenyan internet sensation after being not only the first Kenyan to reach Olympics’ finals but, in 2014, he become the first Kenyan to win a Commonwealth tittle in a non-track event (remember, Kenya=Running), beating the 2012 javelin Olympic Champion at the same event.

Julius Yego at the 2012 Olympics - Photo via NYTimes

Julius Yego at the 2012 Olympics – Photo via NYTimes

At the same period where I discovered the story of Yego, I used to talk with many academics and media or web experts about the expansion of online learning -it was less than one year after Udacity, Coursera and the MOOCs hype beginning- and I explained what Wandida will be about: a library of complementary learning material for university students. I argued that if MOOCs are a good solution for young professionals, they are too heavy for students who are enrolled in universities and do not have time to spend hours following a MOOC, the latter population needs some sort of atomised-courses, just for their googling-sessions when they struggle with their courses and need specific help on a topic.

But in 2012, the New York Times was still headlining “The Year of The MOOC“, and Sebastian Thrun, from Google X research lab and  its futuristic projects like google glass and self-driving cars was still claiming that “In 50 years, there will be only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them”. For me Yego was not a precursor for a new rule, a paradigm of learning with no need for physically present teachers, but the exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis, the exception that proves the rule in cases non expected. A year later, Thrun will reconsider his 2012 claims and say that MOOCs are a lousy product.  Meanwhile, his platform Udacity has gone trough a genuine evolution offering today what is probably the best skill-set oriented computer science learning.

My motivation to write this post was the last video by Veritasium, a brilliant physics channel produced by Derek Muller. Muller, who did his PhD in Physics Education in Australia, is the author of hundreds of Youtube videos explaining physical concepts, sometimes he also explains concepts in other fields like computer science. In his last video he goes trough some of the most recurrent excessively enthusiastic discussions on education that occurs every-time in history when a new tool emerges and can be used in education. Some of his arguments, especially on fancy animations versus classic pedagogic representations, reminded me my own discussions with some academics who can be very enthusiastic to teach online, but who will not produce any content because of a bad perfectionism: when they see Wandida videos, the first comments can vary from the harsh “this is not how we teach science”, to the moderate “I like the idea, but I need to prepare sophisticated animations and a complete structured course and this requires a commitment I cannot fulfil”.

On the argument for the “need for a complete course structure before we start”, the answer is what I qualify here as ‘the Youtube Learning’, a creative chaos of open and re-usable educational ressources where you do not need to produce all the pre-requisites for you lessons: someone else have already done it, or someone else will do, you just come and upload your part of the big piecewise lesson. No need to cast one hour lessons like in the early ages of MIT Opencourseware, or to wait until you are able to produce a full set of modules to build a MOOC.

On the animations remark, I always like to show some of Udacity’s first videos, sometimes saying to people, “look, these are Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, and they do not mind showing their face in front of an amateurishly set-up webcam, their educational content is very good, anything else is a detail”.

Where I agree with Veritasium video, is that no single form of technology in education will ever replace the good old teacher waving his arms in front of pupils. But to round off the teacher’s role in 2014,  the diversity of online educational content is needed, and any bottleneck of single paths and single ways of doing should be avoided.