Mar 4, 2011

Exploring VYou's Potential

Back last semester, when the social networking site VYou had recently started up, I wrote a piece discussing some of VYou's potentials for education and for talking about philosophy:  On VYou: Carving Out New Territory for Philosophy in Cyberspace, and I started up my own VYou account, linked it to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and suggested it as a means for posing questions to me for readers of this site.

The basic idea behind VYou -- structurally -- is that its users create video profiles, complete with a short, silent, holding pattern video (like the one you see at the bottom of this post) and a "'I'll respond to your question or comment" response video.  Users or other visitors to the site can enter questions or comments, to which the user creates a short video response, using a webcam (though I'm guessing that smartphones with front-facing cameras would be usable as platforms as well -- VYou's designer, Steve Spurgat, talks about this).  One's responses can be tagged, in a way, and questions can be set up as follow-up responses to previous questions and responses.

To go by the website -- in which the most prominent term displayed is "Conversational Video" -- the basic idea behind VYou is to create both a new hybrid medium for interaction, one which could interface with the other more popular and established social media networks out there, and to build a community of users who would interact with each other through that medium -- "Build," "Share," "Interact" are the key action words, although, for reasons below, I'm a little skeptical about how far the last one goes."  Their overall helpfile Wiki suggests that users "communicate with friends & fans. . . . share your expertise . . . answer common questions about your business." In fact, they seem to have had businesses in mind when they envisioned the medium -- not a lot of business use up to this point though.

I didn't get a whole lot of questions  or comments to respond to -- even now, I'm down in the high end of the lower-tiers of users (some of whom have answered hundreds of questions) -- until the last week or so.  Since then, the number of questions I've been asked and responded to has more than doubled.  More importantly, I'm getting a better grasp on some of the potentials -- for philosophy as a practice and for education more broadly -- this relatively new social medium presents.  It also has some handicaps, some, I think, unavoidable given the nature of the medium, others possibly remediable.
For the last several years, I have been experimenting with more uses of multiple media, incorporated piece by piece, in my Philosophy and Critical Thinking classes, generally set up or at least linked to within the framework of our Course Management System, Blackboard, but often involving sites outside of and interfaced through the Blackboard environment.  Last semester, for example, I played around a bit with Prezi , a medium in which  -- if you have a good imagination, images, time, and know what you're doing -- you can create, store, and play really stunning presentations, but which can --  if you're not careful in designing -- induce mild motion sickness in susceptible students!  This semester, my main innovation has been using my flipcam to video course lectures, which we then post via FSU's institutional channel intoYoutube.

Until, that is, I decided to pick up the VYou experiment I'd started previously, and draw my Critical Thinking students into it.  I offered them a bribe -- a small amount of extra credit points -- for asking up to four interesting, class-related questions on my VYou profile.  I showed the site to them briefly in class, and provided a link in Blackboard. My hope was that once they went onto the site, they might be intrigued by the medium and its possibilities, skim other students' questions and my responses, perhaps even start asking other users some questions or generating their own VYou profiles.  In the process, perhaps they would learn something new about Critical Thinking, or at least have reinforced something they'd heard in class, read in the textbook, discovered on their own.  They might even get drawn into the higher-order, bigger-picture thinking we'd all love to see our students carrying out, reflecting on the purposes or the nature or the boundaries of Critical Thinking.

Of course, I'd benefit in the process, getting an infusion of new energy into my long-stagnant profile -- for questions or comments from others are what provide vitality in the VYou world.  Students would ask philosophical questions, and perhaps my videoed responses could provoke a broader audience to ask their own new questions in turn, and what I'd wanted VYou to be when I signed up -- a tool of some use for disseminating views on, and interesting people in, philosophy --might materialize.

So far, I've been asked and responded to the following from my Critical Thinking students:
Is it better to be a skeptical thinker or a critical thinker?

What is the difference between the fallacies of composition and division

What are the key indicators that distinguish inductive arguments from deductive arguments

Is an opinion always considered to be biased?
and the most interesting student question yet:
Does writing music require critical thinking skills?
A number of other questions have been asked, some of which might be from my Critical Thinking students, (since they didn't use their FSU emails -- not really thinking things out on their parts), or from other people.  Other recent questions are clearly not from my students -- I doubt any of them at this point know who Peter Singer is (or would call themselves indoctrinated by him) or what Utilitarianism is, let alone whether it could be a valuable perspective.

I have yet to invest the time to go through VYou profiles and see whether anyone else is attempting to use it primarily to advance their discipline or education -- a quick perusal doesn't turn up too many, although I do find some VYousers (that's one neologistic option, mentioned here) whose responses include some fairly intellectual fare that might be useful for some sort of class -- and a few (e.g. EEClark, an art critic and art history prof) clearly oriented by some intellectual discipline.  The absence or paucity of some looked-for trait in a sample doesn't warrant the conclusion  that it is actually lacking in the larger group sampled from, but it does tell us one thing:  that if it is out there -- if there are people using VYou as a component or support in education, such re-purposing of the social network remains uncommon enough not to require one do look hard for it.

What has VYou been used for, in the main?  Most of the high-volume profiles are loaded full of questions and answers that are not particularly edifying, but which I'm  not going to knock, since social networks in general are popularized, catch on, spread their tendrils, and solidify over time precisely through all that phatic communication, exchanges, opinings, and quips forgotten fairly soon but meaningful in the interval of the "time being," since they do keep communication occurring, occasionally advance it, allow the sense that there is another present.  Of course, because of its format,  VYou ends up becoming a repository of such preserved portions of talk, undecaying slices of 2 1/2 minutes of micro-fame.

There are some profiles out there initially interesting to some degree because of some gimmick, some shtick, some feature that sets the VYouser apart.  Sometimes it is the location they capture video from, as with ask this trucker.  Others have a catchy moniker, like the dubiously named Lady Philosopher.  Yet others, like Jason DeRusha, become interesting through humor, in his case, rather deadpan.  There are channels, containing a range of profiles varying widely in topics, self-descriptions, level of interaction, and worthiness of clicking and watching.  And, again, if watching various people -- from comedians to teenagers to self-proclaimed tech-nerds to users with something very specific in mind for VYou -- looking into a camera and answering questions strikes you as something worthwhile, enjoyable, thought-provoking, then the VYou world is your oyster. You stumble occasionally across well-told narratives, funny insights, shocking confessions, less-than -guarded opinions and judgments, even illuminating explanations -- all of which has its place.

But does VYou have potential for my discipline, Philosophy?  And can it be used for explicitly educational purposes, to support some sort of systematic study of an already existing curriculum?  (By the way, here's a VYouser who suggests uses for K-12 education)

It certainly does for answering questions.  If someone in my Critical Thinking class goes to my VYou profile, they will find a growing body of answers and discussions to questions which they might have been inclined to ask themselves and others they had no idea to ask -- one of the benefits of being in a class with other people is that you can learn from fellow students who are in the process of learning.  VYou's very format -- the degree of interactivity, the video response -- these can be appealing for students already affectively attached to looking at screens, seeing value in web-based formats -- and these can reinforce and supplement older, still reliable forms of teaching and learning.

One of the concepts -- one I find unproblematic in general but towards which I admit great skepticism about its particular classifications and its invocations -- which we pedagogues are near-constantly exhorted to take into account is that of "learning style".  I wonder if perhaps there might not be a new learning style developing -- in much more complex ways than the typically hamhanded theories and even cruder tests, workshops and white papers about "learning" styles allows to be conceptualized -- and in less schematic manners than the parallel discourses about Millennial learners and digital natives foists upon us -- or really, already developed and just spreading, growing, often through quite conscious interventions -- a learning style better corresponding with web 2.0 interactivity but desirous of what in the blogosphere they tell you you must provide:  quality content.

Such bundled video responses as VYou affords could also be of interest or use to many others, arousing memories of their education, spurring them to seek one, piquing their interest in a topic -- perhaps even clarifying matters for them, tossing them some deep thought to mull over.  I know from comments (some posted, some emailed) that my videoed Critical Thinking lectures on Youtube are being viewed and found useful (even entertaining) by viewers in other Critical Thinking classes at my university, students enrolled at different schools, even people who enjoy lectures, discussions, explorations of intellectual topics.  VYou video responses could be like pages of self-contained topics in a non-sequential book.

There's something to be said for putting one's work out there, for engaging a public outside the proverbial "ivory tower" (though our metaphors have shifted -- these days, more concerned with  a different genre of tubes: silos).  Having people -- anyone who wants -- ask questions to which then you think out short responses, that strikes me as wonderful intellectual calisthenics, possessing the unpredictability of  sparring, but without the aggressiveness or competitiveness-- though, I suppose a VYouser could generate a persona who simply insulted, berated, or argued with their questioners.  When it comes to determining VYou's potentials for my discipline, bringing others in, as I've done with my students, has proven helpful.  Even if you're a philosopher, practiced in constructing and conducting thought experiments, with following out implications, for harnessing the imagination, sometimes you really need the input of other people to see what something can do, to glimpse a potential, follow that up, perhaps have it realized or not, but from the new vantage point glimpse another potential, another feature, another aspect, new projects on a wider horizon.

There are also some handicaps to VYou as a tool for education or for Philosophy, some of which could be remedied, though that would likely require considerable work.  Others are inherent in the very nature of the format as they've fixed upon it.  I'm going to just provide one criticism of each of these types here, and one which might be regarded as straddling these two categories, for several reasons.  First, I would be very interested in seeing what additional criticisms any of my readers might provide of VYou, and if you want to have a conversation, you can't say everything, now can you.  Another is that I don't feel responsible for providing the developers of VYou with all of the real critiques applicable to their product -- why be an unpaid consultant to them, essentially placing a white paper in their hands for nothing? The third is purely pragmatic, namely, I still have to grade midterm examinations tonight.

So, what is the problem which could be remedied?  VYou lacks any real coherent system for organizing the responses that are available for viewing.  Even for one's own responses, there is no (even rudimentary) organization system by which, for example, I could isolate the questions from my Critical Thinking classes for a student who did not want to wade through all the other questions and responses.  If I continue to use VYou for multiple courses, as I plan to do, there will have to be some way to categorize the interactions.  Likewise, while there are categories for VYousers, they really require shoehorning -- I'm listed under Religion, Literature, and Motivational Speaking -- Education, not to speak of Philosophy, not being options.  But, when one goes to Religion, for example, there is no way for a site visitor to tell whose profiles might be useful except brief self-descriptions.  There's no way to search or tag the subjects of  responses or questions across VYousers.  And, there's no way whatsoever to determine the quality of responses. Lack of organization remains a definite problem, and as the number of responses continues to grow, perhaps VYou will start adding such features.  It is organization that makes a coherent book out of a bunch of pages, and higher-level organization that makes a library out of heaps of books.

One problem which I do not think can be remedied, because to address it would require departing from or adding to the very premise of VYou (and Steve Spurgat's answer to another VYouser's question conforms this), is the inherent limitation imposed by the written question-videoed answer format.  Are these really conversations?  Talking is taking place, and afterward so is listening, but if we choose to call this conversation, it has to be in a derivative sense of the term, as when we use it to refer to articles on a common subject which quote from and respond to each other.  Even VYousers -- who can as in other social networks, follow each other -- can't video-talk directly or even in turn. They must write each other, then wait for a video response to be recorded and posted.

This is interactive, to be sure, but the degree of interaction is limited by the very channel that sets VYou apart from other forms of social media.  It can work for class questions, in fact the format even offers a delay and distance often needed to provide opportunity for student reflection, but how well would it work for genuine philosophical dialogue or for the back and forth one sees in upper-level classes?  And, in order to more fully participate in the interactive universe of discourse and image, students would need to create their own VYou profiles.  While this would swell the ranks of VYousers -- which would certainly be good news for the site developers -- I have doubts whether this would really foster deep, collaborative, ongoing intellectual community -- a nascent republic of letters or the marketplace of ideas in the making -- or whether other interactive formats would not better mediate the analogies to conversations, to discussions, to study-informed back and forth that is such a vital component.

In any case, I plan to continue my experiment with VYou, and I invite your comments, whether you prefer to leave them  here, or essay that medium.