Teaching and acting (or, why I don’t plan to sell recorded classes in the near future)

Several weeks ago, my wife and I saw a wonderful play at our local theater in Modi’in  (“Mother Courage and Her Children“).  At the end, the actors came out to receive their richly deserved applause.  Three times, the actors came out, took their bows, and were warmly applauded by the audience.  We loved their performance — but just as importantly, they loved performing, and they loved to see and hear the reactions from the audience, both during and after the play.

I’m sure that some or all of these actors have worked in television and the movies; Israel is a small country, and it’s hard for me to believe that actors can decide only to work in a single medium.  But I’ve often heard that actors prefer to work on stage, because they can have a connection with the audience.  When they say something funny, sad, or upsetting, they can feel (and even hear) the audience’s reaction.

But while we often hear about TV and movie stars making many millions of dollars off of their work, it’s less common for stage actors to make that kind of money.  That’s because when you act on stage, you’re by definition limiting your audience to the number of people who can fit in a theater.  Even the largest theaters aren’t going to hold more than a few hundred seats; by contrast, even a semi-successful TV show or movie will get tens or hundreds of thousands of viewers on a given night.  (And yes, TV and film have many more expenses than plays do — but the fact remains that you can scale up the number of TV and film viewers much more easily than you can a play.  Plus, movies and TV can both be shown in reruns.)

Another difference is the effort that you need to put into a stage production, as opposed to a TV program or a movie: In the former case, you need to perform each and every night.  In the latter, you record your performance once — and yes, it’ll probably require multiple takes — and then it can be shown any number of times in the future.  You can even be acting on stage while your TV show is broadcast.  Or more than one of your movies can be shown simultaneously, in thousands of cities around the world.

What does this have to do with me?  And why have I been thinking about this so much over the last few weeks, since seeing that play?

While I’m a software developer and consultant, I also spend a not-insignificant time teaching people: In any given week, I will give 2-4 full days of classes in Python, Ruby, Ruby on Rails, PostgreSQL, and Git, with other classes likely to come in the next few months.

I’m starting to dip my toes into the waters of teaching online, and hope to do it increasingly frequently over the coming months and years.  But unlike most online programming courses currently being offered, I intend to make most or all of my courses real-time, live, and in person.

This has some obvious disadvantages: It means that people will need to be available during the precise hours that I’m teaching. It means that the course will have to be higher in price than a pre-recorded video course, because I cannot amortize my time investment over many different purchases and viewings.  And it means that the course is limited in size; I cannot imagine teaching more than 10 people online, just as I won’t teach an in-person class with more than 20 people.

Given all of these disadvantages, why would I prefer to do things this way, live and in person?

The answer, in a word, is: Interactions.

I’m finishing my PhD in Learning Sciences, and if there’s anything that I have gained from my studies and research, it’s that personal interactions are the key to deep learning. That’s why my research is all about online collaboration; I deeply believe that it’s easiest and best to learn when you speak with, ask questions of, challenge, and collaborate with others, ideally when you’re trying to solve a problem.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to learn on your own; I certainly spend enough hours each week watching screencasts and lectures, and reading blog posts, to demonstrate that it’s possible, pleasurable, and beneficial to learn in these ways. But if you want to understand a subject deeply, then you should communicate somehow with other people.

That’s one of the reasons why pair programming is so helpful, improving both the resulting software and the programmers who engage in the pairing. That’s why open source is so successful — because in a high-quality open-source project, you’ll have people constantly interacting, discussing, arguing, and finally agreeing on the best way to do things. And that’s why I constantly encourage participants in my classes to work together when they’re working on the exercises that I ask them to solve: Talking to someone else will help you to learn better, more quickly, and more deeply.

I thus believe that attending an in-person class offers many advantages over seeing a recorded screencast or lecture, not because the content is necessarily better, but because you have the opportunity to ask questions, to interact with the teacher, to clarify points that weren’t obvious the first time around, and to ask how you might be able to integrate the lectures into your existing work environment.

So for the students, an in-person class is a huge win.  What do I get out of it?  Why do I prefer to teach in person?

To answer that, I return to the topic with which I started this post, namely actors who prefer to work on stage, rather than on TV and in movies. When I give a course, it’s almost like I’m putting on a one-man show. Just as actors can give the same performance night after night without getting bored, I can give the same “introduction to Python” course dozens of times a year without tiring of it.  (And yes, I do constantly update my course materials — but even so, the class has stayed largely the same for some time.)  I’m putting on a show, albeit an interactive and educational one, and while I put on the same show time after time, I don’t get tired of it.

And the reason that I don’t get tired of it? Those same interactions, which are so beneficial to the students’ learning and progress, are good for me, as the instructor.  They keep me on my toes, allow me to know what is working (and what isn’t), provide me with an opportunity to dive more deeply into a subject that is of particular interest to the participants, and assure me that the topics I’m covering are useful and important for the people taking my class.

I live and work in Israel, and one of the things that I love about teaching Israelis is that I’m almost guaranteed to be challenged and questioned at nearly ever turn. Israelis are, by nature, antagonistic toward authority.  As a result, my lectures are constantly interrupted by questions, challenges, and requests for proof.

I have grown so accustomed to this way of things, that it once backfired on me: Years ago, I gave a one-day course in the US that ended at lunchtime — it turns out that the Americans were very polite and quiet, and didn’t ask any questions, allowing me to get through an entire day’s worth of material in just half of the time.  I have since learned to make cultural adjustments to the number of slides I prepare for a given day, depending on where I will be teaching!

When I look at stage actors, and see them giving the same performance that they have given an untold number of times in the past, I now understand where they’re coming from. For them, each night gives them a chance to expose a new audience to the ideas that they’re trying to get across through their characters and dialogue.  And yes, they could do that in a movie — but then they would be missing the interactions that they have with the audience, which provide a sense of excitement that’s hard to match.

Does this mean that I won’t ever record screencasts or lectures?  No, I’m sure that I will do that at some point, and I already have some ideas for doing so. But they’ll be fundamentally different from the courses that I teach, complementing the full-length courses, rather than replacing them. At the end of the day, I get a great deal of satisfaction from lecturing and teaching, both because I see that people are learning (and thus gaining a useful skill), and because my interactions with them are so precious to me, as an instructor.

2 thoughts on “Teaching and acting (or, why I don’t plan to sell recorded classes in the near future)”

  1. Reuven, great point. We’ve been doing in person lessons for thousands of years though, and perhaps the big, unanswered question is how do you combine the scalability of online lessons (which also have their value, Khan academy being a case in point) with the value of “in-person” (even if it’s through a video conference) lessons.

    Maybe the answer is situational – in certain cases one might work better than the other. The question is when and how. interested in your thoughts

  2. Ricardo, this is indeed a tough problem, and one for which there isn’t any perfect solution. On the one hand, we know that in-person learning is often quite effective. On the other hand, the Internet and modern technology offer lots of new possibilities.

    As things currently stand, I think that the Internet can best be used as a matchmaker and communications medium between teachers and students. That is, teachers and students no longer need to be in the same place, at the same time. They can use the Internet to find one another. This is important because different teachers have different styles and strengths, and are a good match for different students. I also see the Internet as giving teachers the power to make more money, as well as to reach people who would otherwise not be available to them.

    Someone once pointed out that Australia and Canada are both leaders in distance and online education, because they are large, wealthy countries with spread-out populations that require educating. And indeed, both countries have done some pioneering work in bringing teachers (virtually) to remote locations.

    Of course, I’ve learned a huge amount from others in ways that might not be considered “teaching,” but are still educational. I watch many screencasts and conference videos, and greatly enjoy them. I read blogs and articles. I participate in forums, in which I learn by exchanging ideas and information.

    I also think that there is a great deal of educational value in building things, and particularly in building things together with others. (That’s one of the reasons I’ve created the Modeling Commons, and it has tickled me pink to see people participating and building things together. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m a fan of Seymour Papert’s work, and of his “constructionist” educational philosophy.) So open-source projects are a great way for people to use the Internet not only to build together, but also to learn while they’re building.

    Can we scale up learning? Maybe, but I’m not wholly convinced. I’ve had some people attend my intro Python courses after previously using online, automated tutorials — and while that gave them some basic background, the automated drilling that they got wasn’t nearly as important (in my mind) as the context into which I put the drills as a teacher, and also the fact that I could answer their specific questions.

    Bottom line, I think that mass and/or automated teaching has a long way to go before it’s successful. But as a communications medium, or as a marketplace that’ll let many people teach and learn who could not otherwise do so, or as a collaborative platform, the Internet offers unparalleled opportunities.

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