Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Is Youtube an Adequate Substitute for Me?

Quite often, when I give a talk, someone records it, often as video, and webs it. That raises a question relevant to what talks I give: Is watching the video a reasonably close substitute for attending the talk?

If it is, then once a talk has been webbed there isn't much reason to give that talk again. Anyone interested can watch the video, and two recordings are no better than one. So I should make more of a point than I do of expanding the range of talks I give. I currently have, at a guess, five or ten that I have given multiple times. But with a little effort, there could be more.

This links to a question that has puzzled me for a long time. One common pattern in schooling is the mass lecture—a professor speaking to an audience in the hundreds with students taking notes.  In the fourteenth century, that made a lot of sense as a low cost way of spreading knowledge, but why did it survive the invention of the printing press? 

The author of a book can do a much more careful job of presenting information than a lecturer can. A student is lucky to attend a class by the best lecturer at his school—he can choose to read the best book on the subject that has ever been written. Lectures must be attended at a fixed time, books can be read on the reader's schedule. A lecture goes at the same speed for everyone in the audience—when reading a book, you can go quickly over the obvious parts, slowly over the parts you find difficult. A small class permits a substantial amount of interaction between teacher and students, but with a mass lecture that is reduced to at most a few questions followed by responses and the author of a book can include in it responses to the usual questions.

Nonetheless, mass lectures continue to be given. Which suggests to me that there is something I do not understand very well about the realspace interaction between speaker and listener, some reason why, for many people, the lecture works better than the book.

And, perhaps, the live lecture better than the video.


john said...

i think it really comes down to many people (especially younger generations) preferring video or audio as a format to reading text, i believe to them its less of a chore & a more enjoyable experience... i also feel this wa, video is often far more engaging & "human" or endearing for the watcher & while i cannot do much while reading i can, for example do artwork while listening to audio

David Friedman said...

My question isn't about video vs text but about video vs live lecture—and, the older version, text vs live lecture.

Kevin said...

Considering the growing popularity of the multi-campus church, I'd say streamed or recorded lectures are becoming more acceptable. For 1st through 12th grade, my main schooling experience was classes on VHS and later DVD, and I graduated from engineering school with honors. So I think that for most cases, the marginal costs of live lectures outweigh the marginal benefits.

You may consider doing some interactions, whether that's Reddit AMA's, Google Hangouts, or in-person Q&A sessions. For me, the best part of an in-person lecture is the interaction with the speaker during or after.

Kevin said...

[Commenting again to subscribe to notifications]

Toby said...

Hi David,

I really enjoy the taped versions of your talks. I think, however, if I had the resources available and could drum up enough interest among students, that I still would like to see you speak in public, perhaps to seeing you deliver the same talks that I have seen online before. And to introduce others to your views.

The reason for this is, I suspect, is that I would like to share this experience with others more of as a social event such as going to a play or watch a performance with the added benefit to perhaps to interact with you later: you seem like a fun person to talk with. Asking someone to watch a video with you online or on a screen in a lecture hall seems to be a poor substitute for asking that same person to see you perform in public.

I think that you can make a good analogy here with going to the opera or a play versus watching a taped version of the opera and the play. It's simply not the same for many. Why? I suspect it's less of an immersing experience and this raises the value of it. I can watch the whole of Les Miserables on Youtube with my headphones on, but it's still quite different from actually going to see Les Miserables when it's all around you and you're committed to sit and listen for the duration of the show.

As for lectures, if lectures are not mandatory and the speaker is quite a bore, then my experience has been that the lecture halls are quite empty and students will gladly substitute the lecturer with the books or perhaps some good videos on the subject that they're studying. I think that the main reason sometimes for a student to go to a lecture would be to be able to interact with the professor and to be able to ask for a letter of recommendation later on.

I would have to think though what testable implications these explanations have that could not as easily provide support for a different theory.



Rohan said...

Almost all lecture courses will also have a textbook assigned. That leads me to believe that lectures and textbooks complement each other, rather than one replacing the other.

Perhaps we've found that having two sources, one of which is a human who (theoretically) can alter content on the fly, is better than relying on one single amazing source. A sort of robustness in inputs. If the teacher says X, and the book says Y that conflicts, then it's probable that you've misunderstood something somewhere.

I remember that teachers who simply regurgitated the textbook were not particularly liked when I was in university. People were also unhappy if the teacher started covering material that wasn't in the textbook at all. There seemed to be a preference for covering the same material, but in a slightly different fashion.

Attempting to be a Skeptical Thinker said...

I'll take an in-person experience over simple video anytime I can get it. I believe that in most situations, there is a qualitative difference in the recipient's ability to immerse themselves in the content without distraction. Any time you increase the distance from the speaker, you are also reducing the transmitted information in some way. Until we have full size 3D holography I don't think we will have a medium as good as the lecture for most topics and presenters.

MikeK said...

I don't give a lot of talks, but I've given a few. Every time I give a talk, no matter how well prepared, it's a bit different. I adjust turns of phrase and tighten up the content based on audience reactions in the moment, and later analyze how well the talk did as a whole and take in lessons from multiple audiences.

Thus, I hope, every talk performance leads to an improvement of that talk. If you feel your talks have reached equilibrium, more or less, other than Q&A perhaps videos are a good close substitute. But if you're still learning from them, cutting the audience out of the equation prevents the talk from improving further.

John C. Webb said...

Live interaction offers the opportunity for new relevant questions. I watch every new interview & talk that you give on YouTube. The best are those whose interviewers or audience participants tease out little bits of knowledge that you do not include in your boiler plate talks.

Alternatively, as much as we thinkers/academics claim to be most interested in ideas, our nature is also to have an interest in the person proclaiming the ideas. We can best judge that person by viewing them in person.

Shawn Decker said...

On Video vs. Live Lecture …

My personal preference tends toward the side of live lecture. I attend quite a few technical meetings (mostly applied natural sciences) and one of the things that I very much value with live presentations / lectures is simply being engaged in an environment that is not my office. I find that my mind becomes much more aware and is open to new ways of thinking about things. New ways of thinking both in terms of being open to the perspective(s) of the speaker but also from my mind generating new ideas in response to the stimulus of the lecture. I can do this with video lectures but it tends to happens much more easily, often, and deeply when I attend a live lecture.

Perhaps a better way of describing this is to recognize that the live lecture is more dynamic. I very much prefer dynamic environments as they are much more engaging to my mind for a variety of reasons. Further, live lecture does offer the advantage of direct discussion of the topic via Q&A.

A little comparative thought experiment …
I have the option next Wednesday evening of either a) driving to the local auditorium to pay a few bucks to listen to David Friedman live; or b) staying at home that night and watching a live feed of the very same event for free. Which do I do? I pay the few bucks and make the night an engaging, memorable, educational event.

Seconding MikeK’s comment - in this manner the lecture itself is dynamic over time.

Jonathan said...

It's always seemed to me that the lecture became obsolete on the invention of printing. Long ago, when I was at university and had to attend lectures, I had difficulty in keeping my eyes open: they put me to sleep. I'd much rather read a book.

I can read faster than a lecturer can speak, and with a book I'm in control of the process: I can skip or skim, I can reread bits, I can go back and forth. And, of course, I can put the book down at any time and return to it later.

I'm willing to accept the theoretical possibility that a particularly talented lecturer might be better than a book; but, if so, such talent is rare.

A dialogue could be better than a book in some ways; but a lecturer, if he accepts questions at all, can only feasibly accept a limited number of them, and give rather limited responses. He can't give detailed personal tuition to every individual member of the audience, and if he tried to he'd no longer be conducting a lecture.

I make no comment on your own talks: I have no experience of them. I do remember being impressed by your father's Free To Choose television series in 1980, but a television presentation is not exactly the same as a lecture.

Sound and Fury said...

Tom Körner, a Cambridge mathmo, discussed this topic in his entertaining essay In Praise of Lectures, in which he argued that the communication channel from the audience back to the lecturer (consisting not only of questions and interruptions but also of body language) is wide enough to give the lecture the character of a dialogue, and that mathematics, at any rate, is more easily learned in this way than from the structured exposition of a textbook.

Daublin said...

It's a great puzzle, and both questions strike me as having a similar answer.

YouTube is a good substitute for a live lecture if you are there to listen to the lecture. However, it's a poor substitute if you are there to engage with fellow human beings.

Similarly, I think the printing press *has* killed the live lecture as a primary way to learn things. You learn from a "lecture" only if you are able to ask questions, but the more questions you ask, the less like a lecture it is. The most serious students will normally go to printed material, especially given the advent of the WWW.

As an exception, some material doesn't translate to text very well. If you are trying to learn a dance step, no book will do it as well as either a live teacher or a YouTube video.

Unknown said...

We met at a talk you gave in San Diego, CA as a speaker for Libertopia. I had, at the time, an undergraduate degree in economics and was a huge fan of your father; however, I had never come across any of your speeches or writings. After listening to your talk and discussing it with you, I realized what I had been missing. I hastily read Machinery (and Salamander) and got caught up on your work. I was familiar with others, such as Stefan Molyneux, that have given their own spin to your, original work, but I had never heard of you before that day.

I'm sure you had given that talk many times before. In fact, you asked me if I had read Machinery and told me to read the chapter on National Defense because you had dealt with my question there. Anyway, had I not attended, I may had never known you existed. If you enjoy giving the talks, then give them. I think many would benefit from you doing so. If you choose to repeat your most original, interesting, and important speeches, you will have done the world a great service.

Unknown said...

I think that the live lecture is antiquated, but the one thing it does not allow is procrastination and distraction. If you go through the trouble of showing up at the lecture hall on time then you will probably stay and listen to the whole thing.

I have an embarrassingly large number of videos bookmarked and online courses queued up that I never seem to get around to watching. When I do watch them it is often easy to hit the pause button or get sidetracked with something else, like reading this blog! Without discipline, a simple 45 minute lecture can drag on for a couple of hours.

Still, online resources have given me so much more than I'd ever have access to in person. I also like the option of skipping long-winded introductory speakers as well as being able to speed up the playback if the lecturer speaks slowly.

Unknown said...

Well, when you give a talk multiple times the quality of the talk increases. So it is useful for you to give a talk 4-5 times and then have it recorded on the last try.

In the more general case, having a bunch of lecturers giving essentially the same lecture gives all of them experience which wouldn't happen if everyone saw that same lecture giving by a superstar on youtube.

Arthur B. said...

For mathematics, computer science, and physics, I think it has to do with attention. A book is a linear medium that gives you pieces of infornation one by one. A lecturer however can present the information on a blackboard and direct the attention of the students to the different parts of an idea and how they relay. A book can have a diagram, but the diagram is static, while the professor isn't.

chriscal12 said...

Given the choice id rather see you speak live and participate in the Q&A, but that's rarely an option. I get w lot out of the recordings of your talks, and I regularly search around to see if there is a new one. I actually do that with you and a handful of other authors I read, and am always excited when a new talk appears. I'm usually happy to watch the same talk more than once in slightly different formats, but I would certainly appreciate any new talks you webbed.

Cathy Raymond said...

I don't think mass lectures *are* a superior teaching format--for most students. I think they are still used because they amount to a cheaper way for universities to utilize professors to meet regulatory requirements. A few professors manage to use the format to advantage, but most don't, and for the majority of professors and students, a video of the lecture (or even good notes from same) suffices.

Elias said...

I always look through youtube to find new talk by you. So far I have seen the one about the difficulties of externalities (AGW, population, etc), legal systems very different from our own, and the talk on technologies that can wipe out the human race. You say you have 10 or so talks; what else is there and where can they be found?

I do watch all the videos on the same subject because of the Q&As. That's what I like about lectures as well. Sometimes questions that do not occur to the author are asked.

Leonard said...

People also go visit Paris. Why do they do that? It's expensive and time consuming. They take their own pictures there, even though those pictures are far inferior to pro shots taken in perfect weather. But there're plenty of personal pictures of Paris. These days, half of them are selfies. Why?

The reason, of course, is that having a personal connection to something or someone desirable is rare, and thus, high status. Anyone can look at pictures on online of Paris. Only some can afford to go (both in money and time), and only few actually go. One of the few conversation topics left among SWPLs is travel.

20 years ago I interviewed you by phone for a college radio show. (It was 100 watts, weird time slot. Probably heard by 3 people and understood by 1 of them. Don't mention that.) When you die, and I write some encomium lauding the influence you had on me intellectually, will I mention that? Hell yes! "I once interviewed him on the radio..." Even though I cannot remember a thing about it, beyond that we had some phone troubles.

Anonymous said...

As a student, I can tell you the reason from my perspective: the lecture topics are highly likely to be on the assignments and tests (vs far more content to sort through in books). Even though I learn less, I get better grades. Basically, a classic incentive problem.

Note that this doesn't apply to recorded lectures, which is why you see them becoming much more popular at places like Stanford. Unfortunately, this doesn't help learning efficiency as much (you still get the same relatively poorly organized lecture), but at least you can watch at 2x speed.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is similar to the argument you made in Future Imperfect, on whether experiencing a simulation of a good life is as good as really living a good life. I think even beyond the benefits of getting to interact with the lecturer, a live lecture is in some sense different from a recording of a lecture, in that you are seeing the lecturer talk in real time. It's a real person's actions that are producing the experience, not just a recording.

People like watching live sports, news, and other TV shows, even though in those cases what they see on the TV is identical to what would see if they were to watch a recording at a later date. So I think that there is something special about experiencing events as they unfold that makes live lectures/shows/etc something people are willing to pay extra for even in a world where high quality video recording is cheap and widely available.

Perry E. Metzger said...

So, ignoring that others have already made most of these points in favor of "voting" by stating my own position:

1) It is obvious why lectures are needed as well as text. They are two different media.
2) Well produced, high quality video is about 90% as good as live. (Bad video is different.)
3) Given the choice of seeing a mediocre lecturer live or a top flight lecturer by a high quality well produced video, the latter is clearly superior.

So, yes, if you did a regular (high quality!) video series, that would be a great way of getting more of your ideas out than repeating the same talk for small audiences repeatedly.

Unknown said...

Emilysue here;
I have some audio classes that I have listened to, mostly while driving. I loved them because I could listen when convenient for me. Also, if I spaced out (or had to concentrate on driving), I could rewind and listen again.

For classes with a smaller audience, live is good because the teacher can adjust to the level of the students. Also students can ask questions. Not sure about the continuation of large lecture formats though, since there is much less interaction.

Now that my commute is shorter, I may change over to video lectures and watch on the treadmill.

Anonymous said...

I endorse the CD / DVD vs going to the concert hall /Opera house analogy. They are different experiences but both have their place. After all, people buy tickets to the Superbowl, even though it's on TV

Justin Owings said...

I think one or two have circled the issue here, but I think it's all about attention. More specifically, it's about how much I am willing to engage in a live experience vs. a recorded experience. There are a few things to unpack here:

- Upfront costs. Almost all live experiences have non-trivial costs associated with them. You have to get to class. You have to pay tuition. You have to adjust to the environment (that is, listen up, direct focus). When we "pay" for a live experience, we are more likely to feel like we're wasting our time if we don't pay attention. In a way, note-taking is arguably yet another way to force paid attention. I don't think I've ever taken notes while watching a recorded lecture or talk.

- Perceived value of a live experience. Live experiences are necessarily more unique rare than recorded ones that can be watched at will (at low cost). Mind, this isn't binary: a 3x/week live mass lecture to 500 students will have a lower perceived value than a one-off lecture by a guest speaker to the same 500 students; or 3x/week lecture given to 20 students. Every scenario you can imagine will signal things about value. Can a lecture that is free (b/c it's a recording) really be worth watching? Of course! But the signals to interpret value are going to be derived from other aspects -- views received, expected content, production quality, vouched value by others who've consumed it, and so on and so forth.

- Optionality of the live experience. There must be some non-zero potential value of attending a live experience. This can be the opportunity to ask questions of the presenter, the chance of meeting other like-minded people in attendance, and the value of being able to discuss the lecture with other attendees when the content is fresh on their minds.

- The value of interpersonal connection. This one is probably a little related to perceived value, but what happens when a lecturer can look you in the eye? How does that engage your attention? Related: video conferencing with one other person is incredibly less enjoyable/valuable (to me) that in person communications.

What else? I'm sure there are other reasons we engage our attention more with a live experience as compared to a recording.

Today with the sky-rocketing volume of "free" content, I find I'm resorting to many new signals as to the value of content and whether or not it's worth my attention. Recorded experiences are great, but they suffer from harder to read signals as to quality. To make matters worse, when I consume this content, the medium of consumption makes it trivial to abandon the recording (either literally closing it or letting my mind wander off).

All said, I wonder to what extent better VR will mitigate some of these negative (and in my mind, undesirable) effects of recorded content by simply engaging more senses and increasing the price of shifting my attention away (due to having to take "goggles" and headphones off).

Peter Scott said...

Videos have another huge advantage over live lectures: you can watch them at double speed. Fiddle with the settings on a YouTube video and you'll find the 2x speed button -- and suddenly an hour-long lecture takes half an hour. It takes some getting used to at first, but after a few minutes it becomes perfectly comprehensible. I usually find these more engaging than a live speaker, simply because I don't have to wait so long for the speaker's mouth to pronounce the words.

ß Chavez said...

I feel that, while some people may like. or even prefer video, being at a live lecture provides them with a better environment to focus on the content and absorb the message.

For example, while I do enjoy listening to lectures on YouTube -- for example, a talk given by Ben Shapiro or Bill Whittle -- I often find myself trying to multitask, do homework, etc., so I sometimes end up having to listen to a lecture 2 or 3 times in order to really absorb what was being said.

I feel fairly similarly about text. While having a highly-edited piece of work is very helpful, I still find it harder to absorb messages and content when I'm not in an environment that helps me to focus.

Now, that being said, I would still recommend having a bit more diversity in your lectures if you have given many of your current lectures more than once.

David Friedman said...


I would be more convinced by the claim that a live lecture forces you to focus on it if there weren't a picture circulating of me playing WoW while listening to a lecture.

My defense, of course, being that I listen faster than the speaker speaks.

Justin Owings said...

@Peter Scott,

I also like listening at 2X -- but it has another benefit (in addition to getting the goods faster), which is that at 2X speed I _have_ to pay attention or I'll lose the thread, so it helps mitigate the distraction hamster that is always running while I'm consuming digital content on a laptop (this is less of a problem on a smartphone b/c usually it takes over the screen).