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Teaching & Screens

Students have options. At no time in the history of the world has so much media been available on so many screens. Teachers in distance learning mode compete with YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, TikTok, HBO Max, Disney+, Khan Academy, TEDTalks, social media, websites, videogames, and many thousands of other interesting ways to fill the student’s screen. Teachers may be wizards, but online viewers must be hooked within the first fifteen seconds. That’s more magic that most wizards can muster.

Pointing a camera at a teacher for forty-eight minutes is a preposterous strategy for student engagement. When lessons go on for hours, or when young children are expected to learn this way, tragedy and comedy are woven into folly.

Every professional performer adapts both form and content to the medium. A comedian working small clubs reworks material and presentation for television performances. Actors do the same when they shift from stage to motion pictures to television to spoken word. Students are media-savvy. Everything they see and hear on a teacher’s “show” matters—lighting, sound, wardrobe, hair, makeup, eyeglasses, background, graphics, animation.

We could change the rules. If students learn as individuals, we greatly reduce the need for teachers to perform. If there are no lectures, or few lectures—if students are not gathering to watch the teacher explain the same thing to everyone—then the need for teacher-as-producer or teacher-as-performer is diminished to a vanishing point. A fifteen-minute conversation with one or several students is just that: a conversation. It’s not low-budget kin to a TV show; it’s high-value interaction between several fully-engaged people collaborating and learning from one another. Teachers are not entertainers, nor should they pretend to be. (Teachers can be pleasant and fun, but that’s mostly personality, not performance.)

Creative professionals develop, produce, design, edit, and deliver finished media. It’s difficult to imagine a teacher finding the time to do that. We could bring creative professionals into education. They routinely work with subject matter experts, write scripts, hire actors, design graphics, compose and record music, add sound effects, and tie things together in a coherent, compelling presentation. Many are proficient in Adobe Creative Suite (Illustrator and Photoshop for images, After Effects for animation, Premiere Pro for video editing). Teachers may learn these skills, but finding time to produce media is another matter; dealing with revisions requires endless time and forbearance.

It’s inefficient for a creative team to produce materials for one classroom or even one school. Producing materials for many students is a better model. One example is the Khan Academy, which offers more than 10,000 videos across the curriculum, mostly focused on K-12 and test prep. Many of Khan’s assets are simply produced “chalk talks”—a voice-over, a digital blackboard, and some photos. For Neolithic Art, a student would find eight articles (with graphics and photos), and six videos on Khan Academy, including one about Stonehenge produced by UNESCO and NHK (Japan’s public broadcaster).

Geography Now! is much more fun to watch. It’s a collection of nearly five hundred videos, most of them about a single location: Greenland, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Jordan, Morocco, Mozambique. They’re all fast-moving, graphically rich, jokey, and extremely informative. Stats: 279 million total views to date; started six years ago in August, 2014; most popular videos are Germany, China and Indonesia, each with more than four million views. Paul Barbato is an actor in Los Angeles; he is the only teacher, and he has become a YouTube star. Barbato may be the most effective, and efficient, geography teacher of all time.

Khan Academy is a significant nonprofit operation with one hundred and fifty employees in Silicon Valley. Barbato is a YouTuber with some production skills, lots of energy, and a passion for telling students about the world. There will not be a lot of Khan Academies. There are lots of YouTubers who specialize in a particular subject area: Bhutan treks, gluten-free baking, designing tattoos, Canadian politics, gymnastics, tagging and tracking tiger sharks, Maori history, designing first-person shooter videogames, holistic health, playing clawhammer banjo, life in as a transgender woman, axe juggling, organic chemistry…many more to come. YouTubers are all ages. They come from all over the world. Some are K-12 students.

Many students are keenly interested in storytelling, filmmaking, podcasting and related activities. Working from a base of more than a billion connected students worldwide, many learning as individuals, how many might become YouTube experts with a particular area of speciality and a large international audience? Probably more than the number of teachers who could or would do something similar. How would a 20th century school deal with an internationally-known student/expert? As a unique student deserving of special treatment. How would a 21st century school deal with the same student? As one of many.

We tend to keep commercial interests away from school students—that’s noble, but it’s also strange because kids are exposed to commercial messages everywhere else. If Deloitte—the world’s largest accounting firm—funded or produced a world-class K-12 curriculum about money and numbers, its name could be synonymous with numeracy. Without clear rules and enforcement, commercial interests will easily overwhelm the weak walls we build around our students, but Deloitte could follow appropriate guidelines and behave in a responsible manner. We know how to make this work: public radio and public television do this dance with every underwritten program on their schedules. We can look to public media for best practices regarding foundation and government funding, too.

A student curious about the seashore will want to get wet, to experience seaweeds, crabs, algae, limpets, starfish and snails. Not every anemone grows nearby, so screens are helpful. Students can show one another what they find, and explain why they care. Teachers can’t do this, not at scale, not for every whelk and sea urchin, but students can. Think about a student with an iPhone in the Bahamas teaching four students with smart phones in Norway. No foundation funding, no government grant. Small is easy, organic, possible, basically unrestricted. Students learning from one another is a powerful tool for 21st-century learning.

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