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The University of YouTube

Heidi Waterhouse
Heidi is a developer advocate at LaunchDarkly. She is passionate about clear communication, humane workplaces, and conference speaking. In her spare time, she sews dresses with pockets.
Originally published at heidiwaterhouse.com on ・3 min read

This week, I learned how to roll out potica dough thin enough to see the flowers on your tablecloth through it.

Potica (poh-tee-tzah) is a kind of Slovenian sweet dough. This one has poppyseed and raisin filling.

I went from knowing vaguely that engines have carburetors to disassembling my snowthrower and repairing it. Other things I’ve used it for are video game hints for when I’m stuck, adjusting bike disc brakes, using a ruffler foot on my sewing machine, and making a five-strand braid.

The carburetor of a giant John Deere snowthrower
That silver thingy in the middle is a small engine carburetor. The more you know!

A white person has a quarter-sized disk of metal balanced on their fingers. There is no braking surface left.
The brake pad for an extremely worn disc brake of the bike/trike type.

This is not to say that YouTube is a straightforward win for the world — I am pretty sure the recommendation algorithms are doing some dark and troubling things. It is to say that I never thought I would enjoy learning this way, and I was wrong.

I, personally, don’t learn abstract information super-well by video. Or at least not any better than I do by reading it. But reading is not a great fit for me when it comes to learning things that have a spatial or physical aspect. I can stare at written instructions for a complicated knitting decrease for a long time, attempt to do it on my own, and still get it wrong. But if I can watch someone do it, I can usually make it happen myself. On the other hand. while I may appreciate a diagram of how a finite state machine works, I don’t need it to understand what’s happening — the text will be enough.

As I’ve been thinking more and more about video production, and how to tell the stories I want, and technical talks, and blog posts, I’m also thinking about what kind of information goes with what kind of presentation, and learning styles.

Kirby, you’re going to have to step up your slide game

Education research has pretty much blown up the idea that there are “visual learners” and “kinetic learners” and you have to teach to each of these styles to reach a whole class. That said, our brains are all different, and differently permeable, and stacking up little plastic cubes really does make decimals make sense for some kids and not others. Maybe what makes someone a good teacher is having a layered enough understanding that they can explain something multiple ways. It’s not just the method, it’s the meaning. I don’t think that excludes people who are newly learning something teaching it to others, just that a learner is less likely to have as many different ways to explain it. Their way of explaining it to other learners is likely to be much more useful than the views an expert brings, though.

This post has ended up with a lot of balancing and equivocal statements, but I feel pretty confident in saying that I would have had to hand-shovel the snow if 4 people hadn’t taken the time to videotape and narrate what they were doing with their own snowthrowers, and it is inspiring to me, and makes me hope that I can also contribute to the array of human skills. As soon as I find my GoPro, I’m recording that tutorial on lengthening bra straps!

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