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YouTube's Do-it-Yourself Videos Show the Best Teachers Are Online

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I don’t think I’m alone in feeling a deep-seated unease that we as a species have not adequately adjusted to the fundamental changes that took place when ubiquitous on-demand information networks descended around us. I joke that the exact moment it hit me was in summer 2007 when my pal Dave bought his first-generation iPhone and we could no longer argue about facts. Before then, a group of several adults could spend a good hour arguing over which of two baseball players had a better statistic in some particular season. After that moment, Dave could—and would— simply look up the correct answer. Entire phyla of conversation topics met extinction that day.

What does it mean to be an educated person in a world where almost any fact can be effortlessly requested and retrieved? Smartphones in the classroom are primarily seen as a source of distraction, or worse, a means to betray academic integrity. However, I believe an even more pervasive and pernicious development is a cultural obsession prioritizing correctness over discovery. Arguing over baseball facts may well have been ultimately pointless, but it had value as a low-stakes exercise in understanding your own convictions well enough to communicate them persuasively to someone with different recollections.

The dominant framework guiding educational theory today is the 2001 revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain, a hierarchical structure from supposedly low-cognition processes to high-cognition processes: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create. From one point of view, ubiquitous networks sapped the foundation supporting the entire learning hierarchy; from another, they freed students’ cognitive cycles for the higher domains of learning processes. The tension between these two contradictory yet reasonable perspectives is one source of this unease.

Another component is the pushback against policies that set up students with a false choice between the successful completion of a 4-year college degree or a life of failure. In his 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Matthew B. Crawford laments the abandonment of industrial arts from middle and high school curricula at the turn of the 21st century. He provides a strong argument that skilled manual labor professions offer a more promising future than white-collar jobs in an era of ubiquitous global information networks.

An unlikely hero emerging to rescue widespread public technical education (not to discount the career training provided at community colleges, on the job, and within trade unions) is streaming media, coupled with global retail supply chains. If a major appliance in your house breaks, you can perform a search of the model number with a few words describing the symptoms and find several videos of regular people teaching you how to perform the repair—or at least how they got the thing working again. Given modest comfort with tools and the guts to see something get worse before it gets better, you can then order the replacement parts you need online at wholesale prices and have them at your house a day or two later, often a tolerable amount of time to go without an appliance.

The free availability of high-quality, volunteer-sourced, just-in-time training resources is revolutionary. Some of the best teachers on video aren’t working at universities, but are instead running channels on YouTube and providing expert instruction on how to repair cars, houses, and appliances. Therein lies a serious problem for the public good: YouTube is a video platform corporation owned by history’s most successful advertising firm—not a library or public archive. Content producers out of step with the corporate mood risk de-monetization or de-platforming.

In spite of this upheaval, my conclusion is the same one Aristotle arrived at 2,300 years ago: “The mark of an educated mind is the ability to consider any idea without adopting it.” He said that, you know. Look it up online.

[This article appears in the July/August 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Education in an Era of Immersive Information."]

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