It’s a good thing the producers of Top Gun: Maverick waited until the worst of Covid had passed. Not only to usher crowds back into theaters for a $156M opening weekend, but also because Americans have had two years to practice watching people talk with masks on. So it felt totally normal to follow Tom Cruise oxygen-mask-talking his team through a successful bombing run of a uranium enrichment facility the enemy had conveniently, thoughtfully located a mere 2.5 minute flight from the coast.
Masked or not, Tom Cruise’s character Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is famous for breaking rules. In the original Top Gun, Maverick buzzes the tower after being denied a flyby. The sequel starts with Maverick hearing his hypersonic scramjet program is about to be shut down. So he hops in the prototype and not only reaches the Mach 10 objective, but surpasses it thereby crashing the plane. There are few rules Maverick doesn’t break: don’t descend below the hard deck of 5,000 feet; don’t bend the airframe by putting 9Gs on the plane. But in case you suspected Maverick doesn’t care about anything, there’s one rule he follows: Jennifer Connelly’s young daughter telling him “just don’t break her heart again.” Sigh.
It’s doubtful Maverick would have reacted well to some of the new rules of aviation like maintain distance of at least 6 feet in airport lines, or my personal favorite, resecure your mask between bites and sips. Covid has brought out a little Maverick in all of us. It certainly did in my 13- and 11-year-olds. Hal and Zev were never great at following rules. But after several recent trips, I can assure you they do not resecure their masks between bites and sips, and they definitely don’t listen when I tell them to get off TikTok.
When it comes to TikTok, they may not be listening because screen limits went out the window with social distancing. Or – completely understandable – they’ve stopped listening to me. Or maybe it’s because short user-generated videos + infinite scroll = zombies. As Hal and Zev swipe down on TikTok (the same motion as a slot machine) and are immersed in videos that consume the entire device screen, they experience intermittant rewards like on a slot machine; the next video could be the one! As algorithms serve up videos they’re more likely to like, passage of time is lost, which explains why the average session is nearly 11 minutes – over twice as long as the next-most engaging social media app. Across an average of eight sessions per day, TikTok kids consume 180 videos. U.S. users spend over 25 hours per month on the app (1.5x Facebook, 3x Instagram).
TikTok has swept America – nearly 140M active users; 85M under age 30. Unless an even more addictive app comes along, the next decade of American high school and college students will have been raised on TikTok. But colleges and universities haven’t really reacted yet. Marketing is the first application – using TikTok to generate applications and increase yield. As Generation TikTok is exposed (repeatedly, numbingly) to the fantasy worlds of influencers, colleges have their work cut out convincing prospective students they’re better off on campus than in a collab house making videos for millions of followers. Sign of the apocalypse: over 50% of young Americans say they’d become a social media influencer if they could.
Positioning marketers – not educators – as first responders to the TikTok emergency cuts both ways; this spring, some high school graduates let their TikTok followers decide where they would matriculate. But that may not be worse than the USC physics professor with 1.9M followers who made videos with captions like “Im the type of professor to pretend I don’t understand your question just so I don’t have to answer” and sold his own line of merch.
Don't think. Just do.
- Pete “Maverick” Mitchell
Video has replaced text as Gen Z’s medium of choice. By the time my kids are college-age, they’re going expect to learn by video. They’re going to want video to introduce, illustrate, extend, and reinforce concepts. They’ll also expect video to trigger assignments and assessments. According to one survey of 700 educators from the U.S., Europe, and Australia, that day has already arrived: 97% say “video is essential to students’ academic experiences.”
If you’re a reading snob (like me), this is upsetting. You’re thinking they’re not thinking (they’re just doing, or watching). But there are two silver linings. The first: students are ready for it; their video skills are far beyond what ours were at the same age. The second is that video is multi-modal and addresses multiple forms of intelligence. And I’ve read enough research to know that learning through video can tap the high cognitive activity necessary for active learning. Video is also more likely to produce an emotional reaction, which can impact motivation to learn. About ¾ of educators say students engage more with video-based course materials than text-based content and nearly all agree video increases student satisfaction. That’s why integrating video usually leads to improvements in learning, in large part by leveling the playing field for at-risk students. Researchers at Australia’s University of Queensland and Australian Catholic University found incorporating video into curricula can improve student outcomes by as much as a letter grade.
But this is only possible if the video is well produced and the learning experience is well designed. Don’t expect anything of the sort from TikTok. TikTok is fatally flawed as an educational tool in both quality and design. TikTok videos are dross – mindless nonsense or worse. There is some educational content on TikTok, but mostly how-to. To the extent teachers have begun uploading lessons (facilitated by TikTok’s recent decision to allow videos as long as 10 minutes) or as edu-celebrities like Bill Nye the Science Guy begin partnering with Head and Shoulders on critical dandruff education efforts, these are educational drops in an ocean of pranks and music videos. Just when you thought our system of accreditation couldn’t get any worse, Fast Company says “ influence is the new accreditation.”
Fortunately, we’re in a golden age of well-produced video with educational value. TikTok’s explosion has coincided with the rise of streaming, fueling high-quality documentaries and educational series. Meanwhile, traditional educational powerhouses like PBS, the BBC, Canada’s CBC, and Australia’s ABC have been upping their game, news providers like the AP, Reuters, and Bloomberg have gotten into video in a big way, and born-online companies like Complexly are producing high-quality video content for every academic discipline.
Determining where and when to integrate great video to improve student outcomes is a problem no algorithm is going to solve anytime soon. These decisions require both subject matter and instructional design expertise. So video-enabled learning requires excellent production intentionally integrated into curricula, courseware, and supplemental materials. That’s not an app that’s downloaded 100M times each month. It’s a technology-enabled service with educators firmly in control.
With quantities of highly-produced, highly-relevant video on one side and, on the other, instructional designers intent on integrating that video ( 86% would like to use more), there’s one missing link to meeting Generation TikTok where they are: a mechanism for aggregating quality video, clearing copyrights, parsing, and tagging by subject matter and grade level. Because educators are unlikely to find the video they want on TikTok or YouTube. And if they do, it will be a one-off application – typically fair use by individual teachers (i.e., if they’re allowed; many schools block TikTok and YouTube) – not one that’s free of advertisements, replicable or scalable.
Fortunately, such a marketplace exists. It’s called Boclips, a new Achieve portfolio company. Founded 8 years ago by a former BBC executive, Boclips has struck deals with 360 media partners and aggregated over 2M high-caliber video and audio clips for educational deployment. Partners like PBS, TED Talks, Smithsonian, Getty, Reuters, Dow Jones, and Xinhua have handed over mountains of video to Boclips, which curates rights-cleared clips, free of distractions and inappropriate content, with specific educational objectives in mind. Boclips uses technology and subject matter experts to search, segment, and deliver videos of anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes (with the vast majority under 5 minutes), tagged so instructional designers and courseware developers can find the perfect clip based on subject matter, Bloom’s taxonomy, grade level, geography, language, duration, and release date, and then integrate that video into curricula, courses, and supplemental materials.
One would be hard pressed to find many courses that wouldn't be better served via informed, intelligent interlacing of such video. Which explains why major publishers and courseware developers are Boclips clients, alongside ministries of education and even large charter school organizations. With the view to providing students a TikTok-like educational experience, large homework, tutoring, and test prep platforms are now seeking to leverage Boclips to provide students with an algorithmic feed of relevant video content.
A quarter century ago, at the dawn of the online era, many education futurists had visions of über-courses: invest $1M to create the optimal physics 110 course and no one will even think of teaching introductory physics any other way again; they’ll license our course. Junk bond king Michael Milken spent $180 million on elaborate online business courses that would disrupt the MBA (ironically, in partnership with MBA titans Stanford, Chicago, and Columbia). These courses were full of videos and simulations. But all of it was bespoke – created by the course developer specifically for the course.
Milken’s company disappeared within a few years and we now know this was the wrong approach. It’s too expensive. Furthermore, the video won’t be as good as what students are used to seeing (let alone as entertaining as TikTok).
Duke behavioral economist Dan Ariely famously said of Big Data that it’s “like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.” The same is true of video-enabled learning. Publishers, courseware developers, colleges, and K-12 leaders recognize they need to do much more to reach a generation raised on TikTok and to level the playing field for the students we should be most concerned about. Video-enabled learning is particularly critical for non-selective colleges facing unprecedented enrollment declines, and in school districts that have also seen enrollment declines as parents react to Covid shutdowns. We know non-selective higher education institutions are in trouble. But also expect public school enrollment challenges to continue – particularly in red states – as conservatives seek to rebrand public schools as “government schools.”
When students learn about the speed of sound, or breaking rules or hearts (psychology professors, take note), they’ll expect clips from Top Gun: Maverick or something comparable (the original Top Gun may be the only acceptable substitute). Education’s clock is TikTok-ing. So rather than droning on about edtech and video-enabled learning, let’s make sure the video is educational and high quality, that we have qualified subject matter experts and instructional designers selecting which clips to integrate, and then take Maverick’s advice: Don’t think. Just do.