I think Periscope can be great for learning

Last summer, on a whim, I decided to flip the camera around to face me instead of in front of me while broadcasting on Periscope. Earlier that day, I’d broadcasted a tourist-ey area of Philadelphia, drawing around 12 viewers. This time, however, around 350 at one point were all in the stream. I don’t remember the total number of viewers, but I believe it was over 1K — a reasonably large number for someone with zero online presence. The title of the broadcast was along the lines of “I study the brain, ask me anything.”

I didn’t expect very many people, if any at all, to jump in. I also didn’t expect the range and caliber of questions people had: “What causes Alzheimer’s and how do I prevent it? What causes Autism? Why do we sleep and have dreams? How do we store memories? Do we have free will? What is déjà vu?”

It was like a waterfall of questions, all of which were entirely valid, seldom trollish, and all of which I tried to answer without neglecting the details. I ended up sticking around for around 45 mins, the entirety of which consisted of fairly dense conversation — not the kind of conversation in which I expected non-scientists to be interested.

Ever since then, I’ve kept up a fairly regular broadcast on Periscope with a pretty consistent viewership. Of course the level of engagement doesn’t compare with that of John Mayer noodling on his guitar, which was amazing to watch, but I’m talking about things like the brain’s mesocorticolimbic dopaminergic circuitry after all — the kind of content through which I was surprised my weekly section of intro Neuroscience students stayed awake. People seem to be interested in this stuff. Voluntarily. And while they may not enjoy slogging through dense technical literature, sitting down for a virtual chat about it is a different kind of affair.

Derek Muller has a Ph.D. in Physics, and runs a great YouTube channel called Veritasium, which has over 3 million subscribers. His videos focus on topics like how a transistor works and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Again: not exactly lolcats. He did his dissertation on designing effective multimedia for physics education. His main finding: “multimedia which involves explicit discussion of alternative conceptions is more effective for learning that more concise expository summaries” — or, in other words, people tend to learn physics better when the process includes explorations of other, potentially erroneous, conceptions of the material [1]. He also acknowledges that, ever since the integration of the radio into popular society, new technology has frequently promised to revolutionize the classroom, rarely ever truly delivering. Audio recordings, movies, nor video games have fundamentally augmented the way people learn new things. It’s difficult to substitute human interaction.

At the risk of falling into the same trap as many, many have before me: I think that systems like Periscope might introduce a nuance missing from YouTube that might make the difference between something that, at most, enriches education to something that offers a new format. Interacting with an expert in real time is fundamentally different from watching a pre-recorded lecture or video. The conversation is fluid; it adapts to the minds of those interacting, selectively filling in gaps of understanding rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all chunk of information. Participants benefit from the misconceptions that learners bring to the table, because one person’s misconception represents hundreds or thousands of others with the same misunderstanding.

Okay, not every comment is substantive. But hey: this is the internet, in all its grotesqueness and glory.

Of course, it’s not perfect yet — not by a long shot. Interactions are still a bit too one-sided to fully exploit the fact that optimal learning seems to occur when alternative conceptions are explored. But some limiting features of the app are also advantageous: questions and answers must be concise but comprehensive; the lack of a linear progression of classes (algebra 1, algebra 2, etc.) requires that questions & answers must be understandable and interesting to new and returning viewers alike; without things like animations to lean on, we may need to express ourselves better; the transient stream of comments favors visibility of questions that are repeated by multiple viewers at the expense of questions that relatively fewer viewers post. Finding the line between depth and breadth is a challenge with which those of us broadcasting science-focused content continue to grapple — but I think it’s a problem that, as the app continues to evolve, we’ll get better at solving.

I’m not suggesting that we’ll soon close classrooms in favor of live-streamed class sessions. But I do think there’s something unique and valuable to conversations between people that we fail to recapture in classrooms. Among the variety of innovative approaches to modernizing education, this may be one tool that actually delivers on the promise of enhancing the way we educate. It’s still early days for live-streaming, and earlier still for live-streaming interactive educational content, but I’m excited by what I’ve seen so far.

  1. Muller, D.A. (2008). Designing Effective Multimedia for Physics Education (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from the School of Physics at the University of Sydney Australia Website.