Tutoring Seniors in a YouTube Age

Tutoring Seniors in a YouTube AgeOver the last two weeks, I presented three short courses to classes of senior students on computer applications (LibreOffice, Excel, and Inkscape). Not until I was well into planning for the third course did I realize that an important change had happened almost overnight in the effective presentation of learning material. Each of the three courses included some selected examples from YouTube. I had not planned it that way; I had simply tried to assemble what seemed like the best tools to present the coursework.

The amount of tutorial information available on YouTube is astounding. I seriously doubt there is any human activity that is not currently supported by a YouTube video — at least any legitimate activity (and probably a lot of illegitimate ones, as well). I use short, online materials to emphasize points I make in my classes. But the availability of great examples of almost any aspect of any readily available application brings into question the value of a formal class on any subject in the first place.

One might think that the need to gather students and teacher together at the same time in the same location is obsolete since self-teaching with online videos can do the same thing at the best time for students. Even teachers might benefit since they do not have to be prepared at a given time. But I think that analysis is flawed. Students, particularly senior students, learn as much from each other as from an instructor, but the instructor (or moderator) and a formal classroom devoted to the task at hand still facilitates more rapid and complete learning than piecemeal online YouTube snippets. Some people can learn effectively in their own home working privately on their own computer, but what about the rest of the population that responds better to being in a learning community?

What should an aspiring tutor make of the YouTube phenomenon? I look at it as a way to increase the efficiency of my teaching and even increase the fun of it for both teacher and students. For instance, while introducing students to the power of the freeware graphics application Inkscape, I showed the basics of generating shapes, changing colors, stacking, etc. Then, after they had a chance to experiment on their own computers, I pulled up a YouTube video showing how to make swirls and flourishes. The video opens with a shot of the finished product. That can be daunting for the beginning students, but as the video progresses from a blank screen to the final product in a couple of minutes, they see that the individual steps which, I point out as the video progresses, are ones they have already seen and even tried. While a few things are novel, most steps have already been demonstrated. In that way, the students can see how easy it will be to build on their beginner’s knowledge. In this last class, after watching a video I had chosen to show a feature, we spent some time extemporaneously scrolling through the other available subjects on Inkscape. Most of my students were amazed, but one of them simply leaned back and said, “Yeah, you can find almost anything on YouTube these days.” She was right.

Inkscape is a good application to present to a class since it comes with a great set of its own tutorials in its help folder. The tutorials are cleverly written in Inkscape itself so that students can read the text and experiment by changing the associated illustrations or even creating new examples in the margins. However, these are static tutorials. Students can read and practice at the same time, but that is still different from either one-on-one life tutoring or watching a video. Some people learn best one way; others prefer another method. The availability of YouTube tutorial videos for almost any subject is a boon to those who learn best by watching and then experimenting.

However, with few exceptions, going the YouTube route exclusively without support from other methods is not a good idea. Watching three- to five-minute segments can help students learn part of a discipline, but they are not guided in seeing the whole picture. A danger of relying only on short video segments is that students will only learn what they need to know immediately to solve a particular problem. They might not acquire knowledge that would prepare them for other situations. Working with a teacher who has an overall grasp of the subject can help direct students’ attention into areas of deficiency and help them achieve an overall grasp also. Similarly, having a complete digital text (with illustrations) is better than a short video for looking at how parts of an application interact. A student can quickly search back and forth to find areas of interest and see how they can be applied. Some students (including me) will probably not feel comfortable without a traditional hardcopy manual as a backup. In spite of the various online aids, I still have a thick “Excel 2007 Bible” on my desk.

New methods are often feared by the established practitioners, but far from being dismayed by the advent of YouTube videos, as an instructor, I believe they are a valuable resource to make my classes more enjoyable and efficient. If you tutor or participate in classes, particularly classes oriented toward seniors, what do you think of the online aids — including YouTube? If you prefer to self-instruct, how do you learn best; from written material, videos, commercial coursework?