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

by Andrew Maynard on October 18, 2012

Cross-posted from 2020 Science

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.

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