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The Revolt of "Live": Remote Education, Clubhouse and Twitter
Exactly a year ago, we were notified that due to COVID, we would transition to teaching our course remotely. I already had quite a bit of experience teaching online, and I knew that pedagogically, delivering the same content just over Zoom is going to be a train wreck. Teaching case studies over Zoom seemed a bit like shouting into the mouth of a cave. You just don’t. I rented a good camera, scripted my class, and recorded around 30 hours of content. I was embedding quizzes and exercises every few minutes, ensuring the content sticks. I still scheduled live sessions to answer questions and review class content, but I felt pretty good about the quick pivot from in-person to online.
While the comments were overall positive about the quality of production and the level of engagement generated by these videos, students preferred the live Zoom session. Over time, I transitioned most of the content to the live sessions, and now I teach 90% of the content during the live sessions, and around 20% of the content is delivered via these pre-recorded videos. As I tell my students, I make mistakes. Some are intentional. Some are not.
This need to pivot was painful. An admission of failure. How is it possible that students prefer the inferior quality of education of pure synchronous sessions? Sure, they are more entertaining (if I can compliment myself) but they contain less content than a well-edited video. They are not very flexible. You can't study at your own pace. And why am I listening to them? If I genuinely believe it’s better, shouldn’t I stick with what I KNOW is better? Where is the disconnect coming from?
Peloton, Clubhouse, and Cohort-Based-Courses
In trying to better understand this point, I realized that the most exciting firms recently promote “live” activities: Peloton, Clubhouse, and Cohort-Based-Courses. (The fact that these are the most “exciting” firms in my life tells you so many things about my life, but that’s for another post.)
I have to admit that while I take a Cohort-Based-Course and believe that they have the key to the future of education, I do not own a Peloton bike. While I am a relatively early user of Clubhouse, I just don’t get it. For those who don’t know (is it even possible), Clubhouse is an invitation-only social network based on voice, where people come together to “talk, listen and learn from each other in real-time.” In all of these, real-time is the main element. While these are the most exciting firms. I have to admit. I don’t understand their appeal.
Some of the most revolutionary firms of the last decade did the opposite. As Ben Thompson wrote about Netflix:
“What is revolutionary about on-demand streaming in general and Netflix, in particular, is that the service has commoditized time: on Netflix, Sunday at 9 pm is no different than Tuesday at 11 am or Friday at 6 pm; there is no prime time. Thus Netflix will release original series all at once because why not? Best to maximize the number of minutes over which an expensive upfront cost like producing a show can be utilized.“
Similarly, MOOCs allowed students to watch lectures at their own pace, rather than wake up for a 9 am class. Podcasts allowed people to download and listen to episodes at their own time, not married anymore to a particular schedule.
But MOOCs are disrupted by Cohort Based Courses. Netflix is “disrupted” by Teleparty. And Podcasts are disrupted by Clubhouse. The revolt of “Live.”
Ben Thompson, in his newsletter, argues that to understand Clubhouse, we need to see how Twitter transformed blogging. Blogging is challenging both for the writer (it takes time and commitment to write) and the reader (it requires commitment and time). Twitter simplified it for both sides. It’s much easier to create content (only 140 characters). Very easy to consume, as long as I don’t care what you consume. “Twitter was even more accessible than blogging ever was. Just type out your thoughts, no matter how half-formed they may be, and hit tweet.”
Clubhouse does the same for audio. It’s easy to create; just start a “room.” It’s easy to consume: join a room and listen to a conversation. It’s also easy to “quietly leave”. But we have to admit: most of the time, the conversations are just not interesting, veering between self-promotion and outright boring. You stumble on a “gem” once a month. I find myself leaving most rooms 5 minutes after I join. (if you saw me in your Clubhouse room, I am clearly not referring to you).
As the people from Justin TV noted: most people have really nothing interesting to say. This is true for Clubhouse, Twitter, and Podcasts. But at least in Podcasts, I can choose the content I want to listen to. It was edited. I can select the ones that pack more knowledge per episode.
The issue is that reading blogs and listening to podcasts require people to be deliberate. Clubhouse and doom-scrolling Twitter do not. As Ben writes “Clubhouse is poised to provide the same mindless escapism for background audio”.
Or as Bob Pittman, the founder of MTV says, “Radio … is really about companionship. We're keeping people company. And actually, MTV was very radio-like in the beginning in the sense that we were keeping people company. You got nothing to do. Turn on MTV, we'll keep you company.”
The same can be said about education:
“As for asynchronous instruction, students need high executive functioning skills to schedule for themselves to work when they’re used to a much more regular rhythm: class at a certain time two or three times a week.”
Live sessions are easier for the instructor since you just need to teach the always did. They are much much easier for the students. They do not require them to manage their time and be deliberate: when to watch or rewatch, and at what pace. Students feel they just need to show up.
The added benefit of real-time is that there is a quick feedback loop. For the creator (tweeter, instructor, creator on CH) and the consumer (Twitter doom-scroller, student, listener). In times of social isolation, the ability to feel part of a community and have a companion. To see other people type or read in real-time. All are clearly important. But is that it? Are we willing to give up so much of our time for mind-numbing conversations just to feel “together”?
There is nothing wrong with building a community, but what’s the cost? One of the main appeals of Clubhouse is that you can listen while doing other things. But this is not true. We tend to believe we are above-average multi-taskers. When it comes to listening,
“Multitasking usually causes poorer performance when doing two things at once, and puts more demands on the brain than doing one thing at a time. This is because the human mind suffers from an “attentional bottleneck”, which only allows certain mental operations to occur one after another.”
I think we all know that, but we tend to underestimate the impact.
I had the same debate with my students about the chat function on Zoom. One of the features I enjoyed in online teaching was asking students questions and having them answer them on the chat. This allows me to cherry-pick students that will advance the discussion while increasing the diversity of speakers. The chat quickly became quite rowdy, and students started responding and commenting on each other’s texts.
While many students liked that (myself included, to be honest), some students alerted me that it is disruptive to their learning. Giving some thought to it, I realized that it’s the same issue. A sense of togetherness and community, rather than an actual deep conversion and learning. My solution: people could only text me. A little less community. A much better educational experience.
But maybe this is the key to explaining the Revolt of “Live.”
All of these examples have one thing in common. They give you the impression that you are learning. They give you the impression that you are getting new and exciting information. They are not. They are giving you the Progress Illusion. The illusion that time is moving and things are happening.
In my research, we showed that a person would prefer taking a longer route, driving to a further location, rather than stand in line longer. When we imputed the cost people attribute to their time, we learned that people tend to overestimate the cost of their time when they are static (waiting, for example). But they tend to underestimate the cost of their time if they think they make progress. “Think” they make progress—an illusion.
We prefer the convenience of browsing through- and creating- low-quality content to the need to "manage" time.
We prefer the sense (or rather the illusion) of progress since we underestimate the cost of time when we "move" and overestimate how much we "learn" or "gain.”
The result: we gravitate to “Live” rather than “Better.”
As Bob Pittman says, convenience takes quality every time. Every time. The question is whether there will ever be a revolt of better or deeper.