Teachers as Internet Celebrities?

by David on July 22, 2013

It is a truth universally acknowledged that lazy (read: efficient) students will find ways to use new technologies to get their homework done faster, and certainly this has been observed with the World Wide Web. Curiously, students have also been observed using the internet for educational purposes unrelated to their coursework or even beyond the parameters of their syllabi. Even more shocking has been the discovery that non-students are using the internet for educational purposes as well, as though learning were a leisure activity.

In this brave new world, Duolingo, a language-tutoring website, boasts millions of users, Coursera is able to report a profit despite offering online courses for the price of free, and the YouTube has taken it upon themselves to devote an entire division of their company to the growing market of educational videos.  Rest assured that these trends have not escaped the notice of some very clever people (and especially prescient department chairs), who have realized that the future of education – as well as science and public health communication – is on the web. The consequence of this epiphany is my summer research project: we know that the Internet is a powerful tool, but how do we make educational content that people actually care about?

Source: http://sharpwriter.deviantart.com/art/Welcome-to-the-Internet-Please-Follow-me-322248378

Welcome to The Internet. Please enjoy your stay.


Though many people think of the Internet as a sort of deplorable wasteland of cat pictures and Game of Thrones references (I’m looking at you, reddit and tumblr), there are a number of tractable efforts in play to wield the web as a tool for education and outreach. The aforementioned Duolingo and Coursera are excellent examples, as are the well-known Kahn Academy, CodeAcademy, and a myriad of “edutainment” Youtube channels.

What bewilders me most is the sheer volume of interest that these outlets receive. I mean, there are literally millions of viewers subscribing to YouTube channels devoted to every academic subject imaginable, from science and literature, to mathematics and history. And there are a million users anon who are brushing up on their Spanish with Duolingo, taking refresher courses in calculus with the Kahn, or learning biostatistics on Coursera.

unhelpful teacher

This joke is so meta it pains me.

Clearly, there is an interest being served here, and if we can understand what draws people to these kinds of resources, then we can improve the dialogue between academics and non-academics, and potentially even use these avenues to disseminate public health information.

Naturally, this is easier said than done.

Like herding LOLcats…

The challenge is simple: Explain a scientific principle in a short video that is both engaging and amusing; if you can present the information in a clear and clever way, then viewers will share your video and subscribe to your channel to watch your other videos. Master this, and you have a digital platform through which you can educate the world. Scishow is a great example of how this is possible.

Except, it’s really bloody hard to make this work if you don’t have the tremendous following that Hank had when he started Scishow.

I spent the past semester working with Andrew on his foray into this style of edutainment: Risk Bites, a weekly bite-sized chunk of risk science or environmental health science. After a few months of assisting with this project, I felt that I had a pretty good idea of how to engineer the perfect video – something fast and funny with the science rolled up in – so I created Mad/Bad SCIENCE!, which I envisioned as “Bill Nye for the internet generation.” Just to be on the safe side, I also set about creating a series of experimental science videos (“ExSciEd”) in which I used a variety of different media – everything from gummi bears to lego bricks – to try and teach a simple science lesson, so I could see which format was the most appealing to viewers.

Both projects have been…. Well let’s just say that they haven’t gone viral yet.


What do you mean you haven’t seen my videos? How hard could it be to find things online?

In Cyberspace, No One Can Hear You Teach

Two overwhelming challenges arise when making content for the internet: you are 1. fighting for the attention of viewers and 2. competing with every kind of media that can be put on a screen.  What this means is that unlike teaching in a classroom setting, where your audience is somewhat captive, web-based instruction is up against both every book, movie, comic, blog, tv show, electronic game, and website that has ever existed as well as the viewer’s attention span. And yes, if it could be on the internet, it is on the internet.


Seriously, if you wanted to, you could torrent every single episode of Murphy Brown. (source: http://bit.ly/1bwGDWI)

But those two challenges aren’t even an issue if you have no way to reach your target audience. That’s the thing about the Internet: it’s an enormous, ever-expanding landscape. It’s infuriatingly easy to get lost in the shuffle, so would-be online instructors have to figure out how to get their videos in front of would-be students. Do you advertise? Appeal to Redditors? Post your videos all over the Cheezeburger suite of websites? Maybe beg the Vlog Brothers to give you a shout-out? From what I’ve been able to tell, the online edutainment industry is little different from the meatspace entertainment industry: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. A blessing from a known entity is often the clincher that pulls a Youtube channel out of obscurity and into the limelight.

priest john

“You may now achieve cultural relevance, my son.”
“DFTBA, Father.”

The Internet: A New Hope

Though I’m still a long way from cracking the riddle of online educational videos, I remain optimistic that just as the gun was the “great equalizer” for combat, the internet will come to be the “great equalizer” for education. We’ve got the nearly the sum total of humanity’s collective knowledge floating around in a digital cloud. Now, if we can just get a handful of charming and intelligent people to help organize it into sensible curricula, we could provide a university-level education to anyone with the interest and a wi-fi connection. If public health professionals could capture the success of CGP Grey, ViHartPeriodicVideos, Crash Course, Minute Physics, Veritasium, SciShow, or VSauce, they could achieve unprecedented levels of public engagement and education. There is a universe of untapped potential in these communities of thoughtful, intelligent, and tech-savvy young people.

We just need to figure out how to get internet famous…


Then again, Internet Fame is a somewhat of a two-edged sword….

PF Anderson July 23, 2013 at 10:08 am

Hiya, nice post. I enjoyed the ideas and shared interests.

Could you please post attribution for the images used? There was a source provided for only one, and that was unfortunately given as a bitly link to a commercial image without rights to use, and no context provided for the original source. Not good. Makes me wonder if you had rights to use any of the images, you know? This is less of an issue on personal blogs, where you are the only person liable for infringment if use is contested, but it is a much larger issue when posting on a site hosted or provided through the enterprise, in our case University of Michigan. If there aren’t rights available for the use of the images, you might want to replace them with something else with Creative Commons licensing (and still provide attribution).

Next quibble, you link to many interesting sites, but without providing context to find them. If this was printed off, there would be no clue what those embedded links were for, and some of them are quite relevant. For content that is merely entertaining, that’s fine, but for content that supports your argument, I’d appreciate a bit more info. Please, either provide author/title or something that would allow me to track it down later, or add a bibliography of sorts to the end of the post?

We like many of the same online science vlogs. http://etechlib.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/at-the-movies-top-5-surprising-sources-of-science-inspiration-information/

What do you mean by “there are a million users anon”? Is ‘anon’ short for anonymous, or is it a reference to the term ‘anon’ for ‘in a short time’? I can’t quite make sense of either one, so perhaps it is a typo for something else?

Surprised you didn’t mention Tumblr as a feed for fame, which seems to be a big deal these days. Reddit, Tumblr, Digg, Pinterest, and many more aggregation tools, are all ways to reach specific subgroups on the Internet. You only mention Tumblr in a derogatory sense, which is a real shame IMHO, since that is where I see many of these popular science videos posted. I’m going to try to point some of your videos to a video reviewer I know on Tumblr, and see what happens. He’s addicted to many of the same popular science vlogs we both enjoy.

Part of the problem you are describing (discoverability) is really a search engine challenge — the filter bubble concept popularised by Eli Pariser and counteracted by such tools as DuckDuckGo. Part of it is resolved by improved searching skills and more precise queries, and critical thinking/selection in general. Those may seem peripheral, but these are challenges that underlie the evolution of the normative Internet culture.

I noticed you put edutainment in quotes, which was good, since the word is now considered passé and only of historic interest and use. It is considered almost pejorative now, bordering on the offensive, and that you put it in quotes seems to imply that you intended it to be used in an offensive way. Applying it to these fine vlogs and web shows bothers me.

These shows are remarkable, engaging and well done. They communicate science to the millions you already mentioned. What is wrong with that? They are doing a good thing, and doing it well. Perhaps rather than reinvent the wheel, try to partner with them, collaborate, build off what they’ve done, create playlists of the better videos, write reviews of the quality of the science in those videos, some how engage that community in a broader dialog?

Perhaps the question should not be about the “not invented here syndrome” (“We are scientists and we can do this better than VSauce!”) but about how to connect real scientists (who are not necessarily entertainers) with these exceptionally successful science communicators / educators / entertainers. Perhaps a question to ask is what makes certain classes so popular on OUR campus? What do those faculty have in common with these successful science web shows? Perhaps examine the common elements between the successful shows and create a best practices tip sheet for creating science communication videos? Perhaps do a behind-the-scenes study of how the best science web shows are made, how much time goes into preparation (research, scripting, etc.) before it gets to the camera and editing. There is so much to learn, to know, to do.

Thank you for an excellent start. Do please keep going.

David July 24, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Thank you for your extremely thoughtful comment, I’m pleased that my article has inspired such an extensive response! If I may address a few of your quibbles in turn:

The photos that I used without attribution came from http://www.morguefile.com/, which provides free photos which do not require attribution. I’ve been fond of using this site because the lack of an attribution requirement allows me to create short, punchy, captions which (I’ve been told) endear and amuse.

In the past I’ve provided more detailed bibliographies for my articles, and received mixed responses to them – some readers are keen on them, others merely find them superfluous – so I’ve largely dispensed with them. It’s one of those things that no matter what I do, someone is going to cavil me about it! 😛

I used the word “anon” as in the adverbial usage as a synonym for “again” (the third usage here: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/anon). I’ve seen it used as such in other media, though I can’t for the life of me remember where. I can see, though, that it’s an obscure usage and probably not a good word choice given the nominal uses of the word in online communication.

I’m not sure how I forgot to mention tumblr, I’d certainly be grateful for the recommendation!

I’m rather opposed to the portmanteau that is “edutainment” for the rather petty reason that I simply don’t like how it sounds, but I think that it’s an apt description of what these shows are. And while I’m aware of the historical connotations of the word as a pejorative, I didn’t intend it as such in my writing, the sympathetic quotes are merely there because it’s not the commonest word and because of it’s portmanteau status.

The discoverability challenge is a bit larger than simply being able to be found by a search engine, I think. I mean, that’s certainly a large part of it, but there are also larger elements at work, when one is attempting to join the educational YouTube video scene. Developing a dedicated audience and achieving cultural relevance (even if it’s only the YouTube science-education culture) is really quite challenging, because one’s videos must not only be detectable, but also interesting, capable of entertaining someone long enough to tell your story. And this doesn’t even get into the complexities of the interactive elements of using social media for science communication.

And it’s that interactivity that is really the whole of what I’m addressing with the piece – it’s not enough that we distribute information (although I would be very pleased to see an increased volume of collaboration between these successful channels and some ivory towers), it’s vital that we create an online culture that enables direct discussion between scientists and non-scientists. By improving the exchange of ideas between researchers and the public, researchers gain an enhanced knowledge of which problems are most in need of solving through science and technology, and the public gains access to more intellectual tools for making evidence-based decisions about health and technology issues. This dialogue is at the core of what we hope to achieve through social media-based science communication.

I don’t think any of us had any pretensions about being anywhere near as popular as VSauce – or even Brain Scoop – mostly we just wanted to experiment with the medium and explore the challenges of creating the hallowed viewer base. Having previous work experience in the fields of education and video production, I’ve a pretty good idea of how long it takes (and how expensive it is) to produce high-quality lessons and high-quality video, so I can make some pretty good estimates as to what it takes to do what Crash Course does. And I think that’s going to be the biggest obstacle to overcome – finding the administrative will and the resources to make science communication through social media possible.

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