YouTube 101 - Yes, It’s a Real Class
It’s one thing to use YouTube videos as reference tools in class, but what about teaching an entire course on YouTube? One educator is taking a crack at it this semester, and everyone seems to have an opinion about it - particularly YouTube users. So I decided to talk with her about the course and what she hopes her students will get out of it.
Starting this month, Professor Alexandra Juhasz of Pitzer College began teaching a course entitled Learning from YouTube. The idea behind it is to engage a group of students around the culture of YouTube, while requiring them to use YouTube as one of the primary mechanisms for communicating during the semester. The course isn’t 100% virtual - they still get together in a classroom on a regular basis - but all classroom activities are uploaded to YouTube, and students are required to publish their own videos on a regular basis.
On her YouTube page, Professor Juhasz explained the course in her own words:
“The class’s structure imitates that of YouTube, modeling its strengths and weaknesses,” she told me earlier this week. “It is an inflexible structure that nevertheless supports a high degree of user creativity. There are time limits and ever conventionalizing norms shaping video production as well as severe character limits on word usage. The vernacular of the site does not encourage complex written thought. It is a relatively democratic space with easy access for anyone who owns or has access to the technology. The range of materials on the site is growing but may not provide all we need to understand the very site itself.”
“Meanwhile,” she continued, “the strengths and weaknesses of traditional higher education are always available as a comparison, given that we are not following these standards but often wish we might be. I believe that much of the learning about YouTube will be produced by the constraints and openness of the form of the class.”
Though the class has just gotten under way, it’s already received a lot of coverage in the mainstream media, leading to a barrage of comments from the YouTube community, many of which have been downright hostile to the idea. “This only proves why Pitzer, which has no required classes to graduate, is the joke of the Claremont Colleges - the Shemp of the Stooges,” wrote one commenter. Another commenter asked, “This is a joke, right? I guess I don’t get it. Maybe I need to go back to college. I’ll start a class that dissects MySpace.”
Others, though, have come out in defense of the course, such as this commenter:
I’m surprised by the stupidity of the comments on this thread. Some of the people… who think that social media are somehow unworthy of study are displaying a lot of ignorance. In addition to YouTube being the #4 site on the Internet, it’s building new communities, hosting presidential debates, changing election commercials, changing the music industry, etc. None of that is worth looking at?
“I am learning to alternatively disregard or learn from these statements about the vernacular of YouTube,” Professor Juhasz said of the online debate surrounding her course. “Why is this a place where the quality of conversation is so low? Need it be? Who benefits from this? Also, my students, and many bloggers, have been responding to the lowest comments on our class page with intelligent, careful articulations about the value of what we are doing in the class. It’s easy to make fun of, but I’d bet few of those taking pot shots at the class or Pitzer college have watched any of the classes or the videos or posts the students are producing.”
Meanwhile, her students have uploaded dozens of videos, including this one, which critiques YouTube as being more of a place for entertainment rather than an intellectual forum:
On the whole, though, Juhasz feel that most of initial student videos haven’t been particularly stellar. “I’ve been pretty surprised at how ‘bad’ their videos are, and we’ve discussed this,” she continued. “Of course, they are making videos that look and act like the standards on the site. As am I, really. What’s exciting about the class is that you need no training to speak with the form. Most representations on the site are direct-to-camera talking heads or they mimic commercial fare. But again, the challenge of the course is whether we can work inside the constraints and architecture of the site to produce work that has higher merit in content and form than the standard confections that become hits and norms on the site.”
Because students are learning to work within the constraints of YouTube, including its own cultural idiosyncrasies, she sees the course as a way of exploring what it means to be media literate in a world flooded with user-generated content.
“What is exciting about [YouTube] is that access to media production, distribution, and conversation has exploded,” she said. “And that’s fantastic. But I believe that without other skills - some knowledge about the history and theory of media, and critical skills for watching and talking about media - people end up being guided by mainstream media, ever bent upon entertainment and distraction, rather than the more artistic or expressive traditions that 100 years of cultural production have allowed.”
“New technologies arrive at our doorstep with greater and greater frequency,” Professor Juhasz concluded. “We accept them at their terms, use them, have fun, and buy more. I am asking my students to be self-aware and articulate participants in this particular new media form, and to perhaps seek to stretch the form to meet the complex needs we have of the media including but beyond entertainment. Can we have informed, intelligent, artistic conversation on YouTube? Can we build an intellectual community? Can we create careful knowledge that build through sophisticated conversation and careful research? I expect them to learn that they have a hand in the production of the culture they wish to live in.” -andy