Open access academics: Experiments with YouTube, the Science of Risk, and Professional Amateurism

by Andrew Maynard on October 14, 2012

YouTube intrigues me.  Having been dragged into the YouTube culture by my teenagers over the past two years, I’ve been fascinated by the shift from seemingly banal content to a sophisticated social medium. But what has really grabbed my attention is the growth of YouTube as a unique and powerful platform for informal education which is being driven not by the educational establishment, but by an emerging educational counterculture.

Of course, as a fully paid up Prof in one of those educational establishments, this is a little embarrassing!  But at the same time it raises a really interesting question – is there a way of connecting institutional academics with an educational counterculture that is hungry for learning – but on its own terms?

It’s questions like this that led to the genesis of Risk Bites – a personal experiment in bridging formal institutionalized education with informal social education.

The first seeds of Risk Bites were planted at VidCon this year – the annual YouTube convention.  As I wrote back in June after sitting in a room full of rapt young people listening to a panel on science on YouTube:

  • There’s a hunger for science knowledge and insights amongst these folk;
  • The world is changing, and this new breed of community-grown science communicators are leaving more conventional approaches to science communication in the dust!
  • As a science community, if we want to engage and connect with people outside our field more effectively, we need to be actively partnering these YouTube science stars rather than waiting for them to come to us.

Yet by on large, the educational establishment is not reaching this audience.

Just as an example, I had a search around the various University of Michigan channels to find a widely viewed video with educational content.  One of the highest viewed videos was this one on the Higgs boson:

At just over 19,000 views, this isn’t bad – this is significantly higher than many other UM education-oriented videos.  But compare it to Henry Reich’s video on the Higgs boson:

Over 900,000 views.  And nearly 11,000 likes (in contrast to the UM video’s 49 likes)

UM is by no means flagging in relation to other academic institutions here.  But it’s hard to deny that there is a large gap between the establishment and what people like Reich are achieving.

But what is to stop places like UM drawing on the vast experience of their faculty, and creating content as successful as Reich’s that sets out to engage and inform rather than “educate”?

To explore this, I started to look at my own teaching material. I lecture on a wide range of subjects, from risk assessment and aerosol dynamics, to technology innovation and responsible development.  Amongst all this, there’s some really cool stuff, and some stuff that I suspect many people would find interesting (assuming that I’m not suffering from the usual delusions that come with academic status) – it’s just that it isn’t that cool or interesting when buried in the middle of a 2-hour lecture!

So why not un-bundle pieces of information that might be interesting, and present them in videos that are accessible?  After all, this is exactly what is happening in many of the more successful education-based channels such as the Khan Academy, MinutePhysics and SciShow.

One of the cautions from established educators here is that by doing this, the learning process is no longer controlled by the instructor. And as a result it’s harder to teach to a deep level of understanding (and to specific competencies) in a linear and systematic manner.  But I think this is a concern that belongs to an age of formal education that relies on a model of information-flow that has been swept away by the internet.  Instead, “social media information unbundling” supports a complementary perspective on informal education as a tapestry of small but intriguing insights that together paint a picture that is far greater than the sum of the parts.

Having decided to unbundle some of my own teaching material into bite-sized chunks, I was faced with two immediate problems: I’m really bad at making videos (at least ones that involve me talking to an imagined audience), and I’m somewhat time-challenged!  The solution I arrived at that seemed to work best was to play around with the doodling technique that people like Vi Hart and Henry Reich to such great affect.  This also had the appeal that I’ve always enjoyed the “chalk and talk” style of teaching – and am fascinated by how YouTube is helping bring this style back in vogue.

Of course, as well as not being able to make videos, I also cannot draw! But here I’m hoping that by speeding up the footage, the clips will be over before anyone realizes this!  The result could be described as “professional amateurism” – a style that is really quite crude, but is backed up by careful thought and planning and is designed to use this crudeness to good effect.

The outcome of all of this is a series of short (~60 seconds) doodle-videos on the science behind human health risk.  Each video takes on a specific topic related to science of understanding and addressing risk, and covers it in what I hope is a short, accessible and entertaining way.  Here’s a trial run on exploring the difference between hazard and risk for instance:

The videos posted so far have helped iron out the process of developing content and putting together a work flow – things start in earnest on November 24.

The presentation style by the way is pure me – it may be worthy of a few eye-rolls, but at least when the rejections come in, I’ll know it’s me being rejected rather than someone I was pretending to be (reading this back – is this a good thing?).

Will the experiment succeed?  I’m not sure. But whatever happens, I’m certain Risk Bites will help shed more insight into how the knowledge-rich world of academia might better be connected with with a knowledge-hungry YouTube generation.

Risk Bites videos are viewable at http://youtube.com/riskbites.  There’s also an accompanying website at http://riskbites.org.

1 Carl Walkey October 15, 2012 at 12:05 am

Part of the problem with lectures in traditional establishments isn’t necessarily the medium or length of delivery, but instead the purpose of the exercise. Lectures are meant to convey information as completely and efficiently as possible. This information can be definitions, derivations, equations, theories, examples, etc… What is often missing is the reason for accumulating the information in the first place. Why should anyone care? What relevance does it have? Students see the information as something that needs to be internalized so it can be regurgitated later in an exam.

While most of the lectures I’ve attended are an efficient way to convey information, they don’t convey inspiration. I learn because I have to, not because I want to. Inspiration comes from possibility and the unknown. It comes from seeing how these possibilities are relevant to my experience, not just in the abstract. This is exactly what Henry Reich’s video does so well. Yes, it does convey information in an accessible way. But it also does more than that. It isn’t a series of facts or mathematical definitions of the Higgs boson. Instead, it tells us why the particle is so interesting to physicists, what it means for our understanding of the universe, and why its experimental confirmation isn’t the end of the story, but might be the beginning of another.

Treating Reich’s video as a condensed or ‘accessible’ lecture misses the point. His videos inspire more learning. Do I come away from the video with expertise in the Higgs boson? Of course not. Compared with a lecture on the subject, I would have far less information about the particle. What I do come away with is interest in the subject. I’m inspired to learn more through traditional channels. The video gives the particle context that I can use to organize the more detailed information and put it into context. I want to learn more so I can better understand what he means by for e.g. a Higgs field, and how exactly the existence of the boson was predicted from our ‘standard’ model before it was ever experimentally validated. I come away motivated and fascinated. This is the human element of science. We don’t function as machines where information goes in one end, and innovation out the other. Innovation comes from knowledge AND fascination. Fascination, in turn, comes from engagement. Engagement is such a vital piece of the puzzle and is so often missing from the traditional academic model.

There is still a place for traditional lectures. However, without fascination as context, the information can feel irrelevant.

2 Andrew Maynard October 15, 2012 at 6:32 am

Thanks Carl,

This is really interesting – and important. I was thinking more about Henry’s videos as unbundling ideas and information into small, accessible pieces/threads that together help build a tapestry of understanding. But I think you are right – it is the inspiration and relevance that hold everything together here. Can’t believe I missed this – I’m a physicist who got into physics precisely because I was inspired and engaged.

Tremendously helpful with thinking about Risk Bites further

3 Marcus Barber (@rightfuture) December 1, 2012 at 6:21 pm

One of the core differences between the two approaches (and I would argue, why the University is being over run by preferred alternatives) is the criteria of how delivery is valued.

Universities continue to cling to the notion of ‘peer review’, usually by a small cadre of people in order to reach a smaller niche group. The content delivery approaches are then intended to reinforce the views of the small niche to a fractionally larger wider niche.

The citizen science approach however aims to get informed first, for the most in the most effective way possible. The rise of the social media delivery is as much an attempt to by-pass the blockages and barriers deliberately developed by the historical University models, as it is an embrace of faster and seemingly more immediately useful snippets of information. These social media have an element of what I call JITT – just in time training, as well as being able to feed the insatiable curiosity of the masses (rather than of the few)

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