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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Learning with Audio: Lessons from Television - Monk, House, MD, and NCIS

Borrowing the "in media res" techniques of popular programs, Monk, House, and NCIS, among others, can help make online and untethered mobile learning more effective. In the early days of e-learning, it was common to tape a classroom lecture, digitize it, and then stream it over the web for students to view. Sometimes it was synchronous, and one had the opportunity to use a whiteboard and text message. Needless to say, that approach was quickly discredited as passive. To solve the problem, designers started adding overlays of learning objectives and outcomes, along with review questions at the end.

Podcast / downloadable mp3 file

Television technique: switch to "in medias res." Literally meaning "in the middle of the thing," this technique is employed in almost all programs designed for television, as well as a significant percentage of feature-length films. It's a familiar technique: the viewer is catapulted immediately right into the middle of the action, usually a dramatic pivotal moment upon which the rest of the plot is constructed. For example, in NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Services) a spin-off of JAG, the episode opens with a 2 or 3-minute dramatic situation, usually resulting in a murder. The investigation of the murder is what constitutes the rest of the episode.

Similarly, in House, M.D., the episodes open with a medical crisis, which takes one by surprise. We see a person going about their daily life when a catastrophic medical emergency besets them. The medical condition is life-threatening, and time is of the essence. Will the team of forensic diagnosticians be able to determine the cause before the patient dies? This adds to the urgency, as well as the emotional involvement of the viewer.

In rhetorical terms, what is activated is emotional involvement, "pathos," to use Aristotelian terms. The situation engages the emotions, and the viewer is held, rapt, in a state of hyper-involvement and hyper-identification with the victim, and the race against time.

Typically, authority is invoked in the persona of a "difficult" voice. In this case, "difficult," means that there is distance between the audience / listeners and the voice. Distance is created through formality, power differentials, subject-matter knowledge gaps, intimidation (shaming or threatening harm), refusal to be admitted to an "in" group.

The danger with this approach is that authority is off-putting, which can war against learning. Sometimes the most off-putting authority comes in the characters of "the professor" or the "scolding parent." The content delivered by the authoritative voice can be more accessible when it comes packaged in a character who begins to approach that of a tragic hero, which is to say that the protagonist hero is flawed, which makes the audience identify with him or her all the more.

To be effective, authority must be mediated with human frailty.

Gregory House, M.D., of House, M.D. is a brilliant diagnostician, but suffers from chronic pain from a nerve-damaged leg and has become addicted to painkillers.

Adrian Monk, of Monk, is a brilliant detective who can hold forth on a number of technical areas, but he never bores the audience. Instead, they feel for him, they cheer him on as he seeks to overcome his obsessive-compulsive disorder, and his grief over the loss of his wife, Trudy.

Likewise, the team of agents and investigators of NCIS are brilliant, but quirky. In fact, the concept of professorial lectures is lampooned by Special Agent Jethro Gibbs, who typically cuts off the endearing yet long-winded medical examiner, Dr. "Ducky" Mallard, and asks him to keep to what is relevant. The other technical experts in the team fare no better - Abby, brilliant in all manner of forensics - computer and biological - loves the long-winded technical explanation, which is also often cut off abruptly, with the question, "How does this relate?" stated in so many words. Special Agent McGee, an MIT graduate and computer whiz is also cut off. As an audience, we gain knowledge by seeing the theories in action, applied to the case.

In NCIS, technical details, analogues, personal anecdotal asides are permitted, but only to the degree that they contribute to an understanding of the case at hand. What this means, in some terms, is that we are looking at "situated learning" in action.

In the case of House, M. D., the fact is clear that we are observing an open critique of education, and a subversion of the typical classroom lecture, filled with professorial quirks, long-winded digressions, asides, and self-serving ego inflation in front of a captive audience.

The action takes place at Princeton Medical Center, a teaching hospital, and many of the episodes incorporate scenes from the lecture hall, where medical students regurgitate concepts they have memorized from their texts, and demonstrate that they have no idea how the concepts apply in real life.

Similarly, in the comedy series, Scrubs, hazing of the "newbies" often centers around the gap between "textbook" knowledge and situated, operational knowledge. The amount of information that is presented in a television drama, crime procedural, or sitcom can be quite surprising. It's not trivia, but is situated in a real-life or life-like setting, which makes understanding, retention, and application more effective.

In a world where distance learners are likely to be very film and television literate, it is likely that they, too, feel a deep-seated disdain for subject matter authority that is dislocated from its objective correlative, which is to say, the way the subject exists in the world of phenomena.


What this means to all the programs seeking to repurpose old-school lectures delivered by rambling, self-absorbed professors who managed to tape themselves at a chalkboard for 30 or 40 hours is that every dime they invest in digitizing those old assets will be utterly wasted.

The charismatic professor of the past ruled through a cult of personality, and he or she elicited all the emotions that one might expect of the leader of, say, a cult or a gang of grifters.

The charismatic professor of the untethered world of mobile learning reigns supreme by encouraging extreme identification - by imbuing authority with anti-hero or tragic hero elements. If not, the dehumanizing aspects of technology will prevail, and students will simply move on to educational interactions they find more engaging.

To conclude, a few ideas and suggestions can be made, and lessons can be learned from the failures of educational programs to interest the learners. In a pragmatic sense, what this means is the following:

a) Structure audio and video in a way that dramatically captures the imagination and reflects the very heart of the concept being presented in the module or unit. One effective approach is the "in medias res" approach.

b) Find a persona who will be your subject matter expert and make him or her deeply flawed. The flawed authority figure does not need to be morally reprehensible; quite the contrary. He or she should have flaws that are more exaggerated than those of the general public, but only to the degree that the audience finds the character to be very human, engaging, and ultimately disarming.

c) Consider moving subject matter authority around. For example, if one is discussing psychological disorders, instead of focusing on a professor who will discuss facts and figures, write a script that features a person who is suffering from one of the issues under discussion. She can discuss her condition, and the compare and contrast her situation with that of others. This allows the listeners to begin to relate to it, and to connect her situation to their own. It situates the material within a real person's experience.

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