The ease of video production has greatly expanded the academic world's ability to communicate, and has been used successfully as a supplement to the classroom experience. Most people who have taught in the college environment, however, would argue that there are limits to what can be accomplished outside the classroom environment. Alex Juhasz, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College, decided to explore those limits in detail by holding a class on YouTube entirely within the confines of YouTube's video and comment systems.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a gimmick or publicity stunt, but Juhasz's analysis of the experience provides a good perspective on what's provided by the classroom experience in an era of distance learning and easily accessed podcasts of entire courses. The key features of a class, as she sees it, involve an interaction among the students, controlled and directed by the professor, that relies on preexisting communications skills.
Juhasz breaks the issues down into a set of what she refers to as "binaries"—tensions between opposites that have to be balanced for proper teaching. One is the tension between entertainment and education. Although she recognizes that a teacher has to entertain her students to a degree, Juhasz suggest that video shifts the balance heavily towards the entertainment end of the spectrum, a shift that has a number of causes and corollaries. One of these is the loss of the balance between amateur and expert. In an entertainment-focused medium, being entertaining is more important than being right, which means the voices of amateurs with excellent video skills can drown out the voices of those who know what they're talking about, including the professor.
The entertainment focus also failed her students in that it limited their ability to take part in class discussions. Normally, student communications take place via written and oral skills, which most college students have extensive exposure to and skill with. The visual culture of YouTube requires a communications skillset that few possess, which limited student contributions to class. YouTube's comment feature, which limits text to 500 characters, was no substitute; as one student put it, it "favors inflammatory content.
It's clear that most efforts to take the classroom online will never take such an extreme approach, but the class seems to have provided helpful guidance for those experimenting with shifting the boundaries of the classroom experience. Shift the boundaries too far, and the evaluation may wind up as damning as that of one of Juhasz's students: "as of now, I am still underwhelmed."