Will edutainment revolutionise science education?


Samuel Morris.

“The motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”

Thomas Edison

These words were uttered in 1922, and the argument that the motion picture has revolutionised the entertainment industry is undeniable. Education, however? The debate opens up. If you go into any UK school the vast majority of teaching is still conducted through textbooks, scribbles on whiteboards and, on special occasions, the playing of short motion picture – but usually just to aid other forms of teaching.

An education revolution due to the motion picture – at least in the sense Thomas Edison foresaw – never really came, but could something truly change the way we learn? Some would say it is edutainment (education plus entertainment) that is now leading the way. YouTube, home to some of the most popular producers of edutainment, reaches a huge audience and sparks many discussions amongst the public. Over 14 million have subscribed to the channels Vsauce, AsapSCIENCE and minutephysics alone. Engagement, with science especially, has increased dramatically within the public. Even my science-novice family are discussing the latest Veritasium videos.

But is this revolution? Will the need for the physical presence of a teacher become obsolete? In a Black Mirror-esque vision of the future, will classrooms just stream an endlessly looping YouTube playlist? More specifically, what will become of the education of science?

The focus on formal education shouldn’t be the only thing considered; a revolution in the public understanding of science, fuelled by the ever growing library of YouTube edutainment, is also probable. It arguably already has. The internet can be accessed anytime, almost anywhere on nearly any electronic device. The ability to communicate with such a large and diverse audience opens a flood gate of possibility. With YouTube’s education portal (EDU), subscribed to by over 10 million people, edutainment has the outreach ‘traditional’ education of schools and universities can only dream of.

What passes through this gawping gateway will ultimately determine how ‘revolutionary’ edutainment can be in the classroom. Over 100 hours of video is uploaded a minute to YouTube; the quality of said videos, however, is less easy to quantify. EDU channels are checked by “Computer Using Educators for educational value and content”, but this is no way a means to an end. As content is uploaded more and more frequently the onus on the video’s quality will fall on the producers of the content.

Channels such as Sixty Symbols deal with this in a novel way, by directly linking academics in the field of Physics to the public. Experts in their scientific field, explaining concepts to an audience ranging from 5 to 85 year olds, shows the power of communication edutainment has to offer.

  • YouTube Channels such as Sixty Symbols and minutephysics link academics with the wider public; but if so why do we still need degree courses?

Are there provisos that come with such public engagement? Whilst the good edutainment has done to increase the public understanding of science is irrefutable, is it good enough for people to gain an ‘education’ (in the qualification sense) in science? As Sixty Symbols gets science from the horse’s mouth as it were, it does beg the question: ‘If professors can communicate science directly to people via edutainment, why do we need degree courses?’

The answer to this must be an inability to fully explain some concepts within the constraints of a YouTube video – else the previous question wouldn’t be begged. The perhaps clichéd subject to demonstrate this is quantum mechanics. As it throws intuition out of the window, mathematical competence is a must to learn about Quantum Mechanics. You need to be able to integrate, understand probability, come to grips with the abstract idea of a wave function and, furthermore, be able to use these (and much more) to calculate how quantum mechanical systems will behave.

A large majority of the public will not have these mathematical skills and so would need to be taught them. If it were possible to cram all the maths needed to understand quantum mechanics in a five minute video clip, the need for students to devote three to four years of their life to a degree would be obsolete. Many of the public, it would be fair to say, don’t want to be taught all that maths. They want the final answer. But asking ‘why’ something is the way it is and getting the final answer cannot give the same depth as knowing ‘how’ getting to the final answer possesses.

  • Richard Feynman addresses in an interview the difficulty of a ‘why’ question. He hints that the gap between public and experts understanding makes explaining some concepts, in a way that people are familiar with, challenging.

Richard Feynman challenged the difficulty of the ‘why’ question. He concludes to an interviewer that he couldn’t explain magnetic forces “in terms of something else that you’re more familiar with because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with”. The gap in public understanding, and the deeper knowledge gained through an educational establishment may be too wide for some topics to be properly communicated in a video of finite length. One solution could be to simply increase video length or have a playlist of videos forming an ‘edutainment lesson’, but this goes against the public’s want.

The average length, of a survey of 2.5 million YouTube videos, didn’t break the five minute mark. The top fifty most viewed Sixty Symbols videos average to eight minutes thirty-eight seconds in length*, approximately six times shorter than an average lecture. Users desiring a ‘quick-fix’ means produced content is driven by an attitude that’s incompatible with gaining deep understanding.

YouTube itself has acknowledged the “snacking mentality of its users” as the current problem their education channels face, and have shifted focus onto total watch time over view counts. The benefits of such a re-focus put emphasis on edutainment’s quality, a step in the right direction if edutainment wishes to revolutionise education.

Additionally, it is completely possible that the engaging style that hooks so many to a YouTube channel could be applied to classroom teaching. The real spanner in the works is the fact that learning is fundamentally limited by what goes on in each individual person’s head: how each individual person learns. Edutainment is certainly capable of exciting the masses about science, but whether it has the capacity to revolutionise education must be determined by whether it aids learning more than what is currently on offer.

It is often believed that people have individual learning styles, most commonly thought of as being visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. As with any human characteristics – height, weight etc. – there will be some fluctuation: some people will remember sounds/ visuals more vividly than others. In this sense, there are better visual learners, auditory learners etc. This way of characterising leads to the idea that by teaching in the style which individual people excel, a person will always learn better. For example, to help visual and auditory learners retain the words on a list you would show the former slides with pictures of the words and the latter would listen to the list read out loud.

When this has been tested, no substantial evidence to support learning-styles has been found. Why? Professor Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia proposes that what people retain better is actually the quality of the teaching aid. What auditory learners can remember better about a recording is what the words sounded like, for example the pitch at which they’re spoken. What you want retained in education is the meaning behind words. This is independent of how the information is conveyed. As Daniel Willingham states: “You know what the word opera means… the meaning is independent of whether you learnt the meaning by first seeing an opera or hearing an aria.”

After further consideration, it’s clear that ‘learning-style’ teaching would never work in certain situations; you would not be able to teach the shape of a square as effectively through auditory methods, it is much clearer to see a picture of a square! It seems that to retain meaning-based information, visual, audio and kinaesthetic approaches are neither better nor worse.

So what methods of teaching do facilitate meaningful learning? Derek Muller of the YouTube channel Veritasium posed this question and concludes that YouTube will revolutionise education. Personal investment aside, the reasoning presented is compelling. He cites research that concludes that learning with animation and narration or static pictures and words both work better than words alone: anything extraneous needs to be eliminated.

He mainly argues that as any experience can be simulated in the video setting “YouTube must be the platform that will revolutionise education”. Is this completely true for science though? One key aspect of science is experimentation, and requires the act of doing-it-yourself. Learning through first-hand experience cannot be done through video. YouTube is, for the most part, a passive experience: you sit and watch the person on the screen talk at you and do the experiments. In addition, strong retention has been found to be enhanced by strong emotions. This can be more readily achieved via an active experience. The sensation of personal discovery is much greater than someone telling you how to do it.

  • Derek Muller of YouTube Channel Veritasium concludes that, as any experience can be simulated in the video setting, YouTube will be the thing to revolutionise education.

This is not to say edutainment cannot emotionally invest its viewers. Jacob Bronowski’s emotive speech at Auschwitz is immensely most thought provoking – and it’s on YouTube. The capacity for emotional investment is there in edutainment, but this at most helps with retention, to understand requires something more. It requires the ‘mental chewing’ of knowledge obtained by the learner. They need to stop and think, dissect and study, to read/ internet-search deeper into the subject.

As an edutainment video is a passive experience for the viewer, the ‘more’ needed for understanding is not stimulated. This is where a teacher comes into the education process: to, hopefully, motivate the deeper learning. Pupils can interact with a teacher, whilst at best post a comment and wait for a reply (which may never come) on YouTube. It’s the to and fro, the human touch, of the teacher-learner relationship that is at the heart of education; but can this be improved by the inclusion of a more edutainment style relationship?

Sir Ken Robinson speaks of Peter Brook who wanted to know the essence of theatre. He proposed a thought experiment, and asked what can be removed and it still be theatre? He concluded everything except an actor, a space and one audience member, with the essence being the relationship between the audience and the actor. The parallels with education are almost exact. It requires a learner and a teacher, and anything else should only be added if it improves this relationship.

This points to what edutainment can realistically do. It has revolutionised the public relation with science, engaging people with empathetic performance, passion and perception. This is because YouTube’s reach and accessibility improve science-public relationship. But this format doesn’t improve the learner-teacher relationship, as it creates a more detached experience.

Additionally, properties that create appealing viewing are all easier to produce for a short internet clip. Enthusiasm and narrative are easier to portray for short, edited videos than in an hour long lesson. The fact that nearly six average Sixty Symbols videos could fit into a 50 minute lecture shows how much time and effort would be needed to deliver education as YouTube edutainment. Considering the above, there would seem to be an incompatibility between formal education and edutainment.

That doesn’t mean YouTube videos cannot evolve the way teaching is performed. The research mentioned by Derek Muller earlier can help optimise the way lectures at university can be conducted. The enthusiasm of producers on YouTube can help teachers learn to engage a class. Introducing topics in an edutainment-style could grip students, whilst the lack of initial depth can be used to ease them in, before moving onto a more in depth view.  In the end these are all just tools to improve the teacher-learner relationship.

The essence of this relationship is for teachers to help facilitate learning. Whilst YouTube edutainment can do this when at its best, ultimately it is limited by the person watching. Learning occurs in its most powerful form when discovering something for yourself. Education needs to facilitate an environment of discovery, not be a place to spout facts at a wall of students, hoping that something sticks. Edutainment is so loved, and felt to be revolutionary perhaps because this is what the content producers do: inspire people to open their minds. Whilst the raw form of YouTube edutainment may be incompatible with education conducted in schools, instilling its essence would create a greater environment for students to learn in. Perhaps then formal education, in itself, would be entertaining.

*Correct as of 8/1/2015





Will edutainment revolutionise science education?

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