You’ve had students produce YouTube videos as class projects. What kind of projects did students come up with, and what did they get out of it?
Well, for the first two years we studied the YouTube community itself. I wanted students to think about what they were seeing from an anthropological perspective, to see these videos as forms of communication that can be studied ethnographically. Right now, I’m having them do more and more studies of themselves — not as individuals, but members of a social system.
One project, for example, looked at the effect of anonymity online. The basic, commonsense notion is that “anonymity is bad,” in part because it can unleash the naked hatred on the Internet that you often hear about. But anonymity also provides a space for confessions. One of my students found two or three confession outlets, where people can reveal deep secrets about themselves and talk through them with others. In one of these communities, you can send confession “post cards.” People get really artistic with them. And in the responses you can see that visitors connect with these post cards. It resonates with them, and there’s a feedback loop. The other important thing I think students get out of these projects has to do with the way they’re produced. There’s a mix individual and collaborative work. The videos they make are actually part of a larger, ongoing documentary that all of them are helping put together.
That really demonstrates how Web 2.0 applications take on a life of their own.
Absolutely. They become social phenomena, and it’s not just about the technology, it’s this whole cultural thing that happens around the technology and, you know, nobody really gets the full story of that. It’s as complex as any culture, and as anthropologists we know just how hard it is — and impossible it is — to “get” a whole culture, but maybe we can get a piece of it.
Some professors are wary of new media, and sometimes even downright opposed to bringing them into the classroom. What’s the concern there? Is it legitimate?
I think so, to the extent that it becomes about the technology. But if your class really needs to be focusing
elsewhere, then that can be a downside. I’m wary of asking students to do a lot of tedious learning about a specific brand, so to speak. In the bigger scheme of things, what we can do is put a number of very basic functions in the hands of students. Take, for example, the function of publishing to huge audiences from a desktop or laptop — that’s a really important learning tool that can be used in classrooms. And the great thing is you don’t have to get hung up on the technology in the way that you used to, because it’s so easy. I mean, you can create a blog in about nineteen seconds. It’s pushbutton publishing to the extreme.
For example, what I want students to focus on when I ask them use wikis is how to work well with others in a digital environment. That is the real skill that I hope they will learn, and it’s not a very easy thing to teach. So I think it’s these bigger issues we should focus on, rather than the mindless stuff of technology.
Asked to summarize his workshop, Professor Wesch said the larger message goes beyond the technology itself.
I’m trying to establish a different kind of relationship with my students. It’s a classic shift that people talk about all the time now, moving from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning. One of the ways I like to think about it is moving from a focus on making students knowledgeable to making students more “knowledge-able.”
That means a shift away from content as primary — not that content isn’t important, it still is — but content is for me the fourth question that I ask myself when I start a class.
The first question I ask is Who—“Who are my students?” Second, I ask, Why— If I’m going to be teaching this class, then why am I teaching it in the way that I’m teaching it? If I’m not answering that adequately then my students aren’t going to buy into it. I need to buy into the relevance of what I’m teaching if I’m going to sell my students on it. The third question is How—“How am I going to do this?” And finally the last question is What — and that’s where the content comes in.