I am (just barely) old enough to remember a time when people argued about facts. I might mention off-hand, for example, that Meg Ryan was in "Top Gun", one of my ne'er-do-well friends would disagree, and we could spend the next 20 minutes on the topic. ("You're thinking of Kelly McGillis"... "I most certainly am not, sir"... and so on). The only authority we could appeal to was the back of the case at the local video store, unless "Top Gun" happened to be on television, or we took the trouble to remove Leonard Maltin's encyclopedia of movies from its position propping up our 70s-era sofa.
Today, of course, a quick trip to imdb.com would end the discussion as quickly as it started. While it may be tempting to mourn the ancient occupation known as "arguing about facts," a new reality is upon us, and I propose we embrace it, and trust that the youth of today will find novel and innovative ways to while away their time.
We are all quite used to getting facts from the internet: how many tablespoons are there in a cup, what is the atomic number of yttrium, what is the cosine law. Along with facts, the internet can tell us how to do things. Just in the past week, I have used the internet to teach me how to make delicious barbequed ribs, and also how to set up an encrypted disc image on my wife's MacBook (yes, I'm quite a catch). Both of these sets of instructions were text-based. However, there is also a wealth of process-based information on YouTube.
An illustrative example of this came a few weeks ago when a student asked me to help figure out how to use a particular function on her calculator. Specifically, I had just shown the class how to use the reduced row echelon form of a matrix to solve a system of equations using a TI-84 calculator. This particular student had a TI-89 calculator, which has a different menu system. Rather than poking around experimentally (well, I did that for a minute or so... old habits die hard), I opened the YouTube app on my iPad and searched "TI-89 reduced row echelon form", which the search engine auto-completed after "TI-89 red". There was a 90-second video of someone using a TI-89 to find the reduced row echelon form of a matirx while he explained what he was doing in detail. The video showed both the keys he was pressing and the resulting output on the screen. In less than a minute, both the student and I were comfortable with the function.
There are several notable ideas here. First, the specificity was amazing -- these were instructions for exactly the thing I was trying to do on exactly the platform I was using. I have had the same experience with other devices and software packages; for example, I learned from a YouTube video how to do complicated animations in PowerPoint.
It was also invaluable that there was someone doing and explaining, instead of having to read a text-based set of instructions. I could pause, rewind, or turn off the instructions when necessary, but being able to work through the process with the instructor in real time feels very natural. The on-demand nature of YouTube allows us to very quickly learn how to operate the ever-growing complement of devices that we need - or choose - to use on a day-to-day basis.
So next time you are trying to figure out a process-based task, instead of using Google (or, if you are of a certain age, the instruction manual), head to YouTube and see if you can find someone to talk you through it. The ease and efficiency may surprise you.