Lowering the Standards or Why Can't Class Be More Like YouTube?


This is my third and final post this week taken from my notes from the NJEDge.Net Annual Conference about a talk by Jeffrey Bardzell from Indiana University's School of Informatics. It was titled "Massively Multiplayer Online Learning, Or, Why Can't Blackboard Be More Like Facebook?" and it was a presentation that I enjoyed. I asked a few people later what they thought, and it was clearly a hate/love reaction. They thought he was right on the mark, or they weren't sure what it had to do with education.

He was looking at the converging of education, human computer interaction and cultural studies. He was using examples from machinima and the remix culture of YouTube, Second Life and others. He showed video clips and I could see the question marks floating over audience members' heads. This is an IT as in info tech crowd, not an IT as in instructional tech crowd and that makes a big difference.

I think the "massively multiplayer" part of his title made some think it was about gaming (a hot topic at conferences these days, but another area that gets a quick pass from many educators). The "Why Can't Blackboard Be More Like Facebook" part of the title gets audience attention, but really was more of a tease on his part than a true description of his talk.

He discussed prims (primitives, that term taken from geometry that is the simplest of geometrical shapes used to construct more complex figures) and used them as a way to talk about how we use shapes, libraries, templates, and even terms (like import, export, insert) in software packages like Flash, Photoshop and other creation tools.

One thing he said that I think is important to note for all of us that work with technology is that these programs make the complex easier - but not easy.

We tried teaching Flash to NJIT faculty in one day workshops. Not a good idea. Even my Photoshop and Premiere Elements (the simpler versions of those powerful & difficult packages) workshops were pretty much failures. What most faculty learned (other than a few prims) was that it was going to take a lot of time to do what they wanted to do with these tools. As one wag said, "Isn't that why we invented graduate students?"

It's the movement from prims to visual sophistication that signals learning in these multimedia forms. His examples of students moving from import & copy paste to original creations (music, images, stories) were good ones. But again, I think the audience sees animations from video games as - well, games. He also pointed to people who are uploading "training" videos to YouTube on using software. There's more and more good video content there hiding under the dross. The cream may rise to the top, but the dross (the scum that forms on the surface) does too.

Where would our students go to learn how to do these kinds of video and graphic mashups? A course we offer? Chances are we don't offer such a course, but even if your school does offer one, these are the technologies and skills interested students are learning on their own. It's self-education and learned through ad hoc communities online centered around blogs & wikis where others freely post their knowledge. Is this, he asked, real distributed education?

An interesting comparison he made was to the spread of these videos and their creation to a disease that's willing to sacrifice expertise (and some quality) in order to spread rapidly (and efficiently). The expression "going viral" fits in here.

That made me think of William Stafford. He's a poet who made a discipline of writing a poem each morning upon rising. When asked about how difficult it must have been to write a good poem each day, he replied that he lowered his standards. Bardzell actually suggested as much and then said that he couldn't say "lower standards" to an audience of people in education. But Stafford was saying that in the early phases of composition too much concern about quality is merely inhibiting.

"Lower the standards" is something I can accept if that means accepting that burst of first creativity as just that. It means we stop whining about not having time to write and writer's block and the anxiety of writing a good poem or (more dangerously) writing something good enough to be published. It means students get to experiment and produce interesting but unsophisticated pieces - and then are helped along. This is not at all a radical or very new idea, and I think many educators believe it. I'm not sure many actually practice it.

Check out Stafford if this idea appeals to you. I found real value in his approach and tried to follow even his writing ritual for a time. Read his Writing the Australian Crawl and You Must Revise Your Life.

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