OK, class, it's time for YouTube

A college professor discovers that YouTube makes his classes come alive.

I teach a course in marine biology at a college in central Maine. Marine biology is one of those whizzbang courses that students are attracted to because of all the talk of sharks, coral reefs, and dolphin communication. But there's also the fascinating "low end" stuff: exotic invertebrates that look like little more than inanimate, sedentary lumps, and seaweeds that dance in regal splendor as they shift about in the currents.

A great deal of the course revolves around descriptions of these organisms, which I communicate with a note of wistfulness, because nothing I say can do justice to these beautiful creations in their natural habitats. Yes, I can pass around some sharks' teeth, allow my students to handle a dried-out sponge, and let them take a gander at a small octopus preserved in a block of clear plastic. But there's a clear lack of dynamism here. What, I often wondered, could I do to give my students more of a sense of the real story?

That's when my son introduced me to YouTube. I had been aware of this Web-video site for some time but had hesitated to explore it because I was afraid it would be another time sink. "Just take a look, Dad," pleaded Anton as he shoved the laptop in front of me. "You can see your old rock bands."

"I don't want to see my old rock bands," I protested like a child pushing away a spoonful of strained carrots.

"But there's other stuff," he said. "Like sharks."

That got my attention. "Sharks?" I echoed.

After my son went to bed that night I decided to noodle with YouTube a little. Sharks, hmm. I did a quick search and was rewarded with a rich selection of shark videos beyond my dreams. I had no idea YouTube was so expansive and, in many cases, professional. Within a few minutes I was hooked, watching the blue shark in action, listening to short lectures on shark anatomy, and being totally blown away by images of rare species of deep-sea sharks.

The evening wore on. I YouTubed sponges, the simplest multicellular animals, and watched, transfixed, as a scientist demonstrated filtering behavior by injecting a fluorescent dye into the side of an immense sponge to track the flow of water through its body. Beautifully executed and taped, the dye blossomed from the creature's vent like some ethereal flower.

I quickly began the task of "favoriting" these videos and depositing them in my personal file. I soon had an impressive collection: jellyfish with bioluminescent tentacles, octopi on the prowl, a scallop that swam like a set of animated dentures, sea cucumbers snuffling in the muck, flying fish soaring over the waves. There seemed to be no theme I couldn't find.

When I was done, it was 2 a.m. – long past my bedtime; but I didn't retire feeling I had squandered those hours. Rather, I could barely sleep because of my anticipation of the morning's class.

I began my lecture on the classification of the invertebrates, reciting facts about their anatomy and habits as my students dutifully scribbled away. And then it was showtime. I booted up the laptop and projector, darkened the room, and clicked on YouTube.

The effect was magical. The blue ocean ebbed and flowed before us as myriad sea creatures swam, crawled, and flew about. I stood alongside the screen, narrating the action, occasionally pausing a video clip to point out this or that detail that illuminated my students' notes. From sponges to mollusks to starfish and their kin, we covered all the phyla of invertebrates.

The "wows" and "whoas" from the class confirmed for me that I had struck gold. When the lights came back on one of my students gushed, "That was a real trip."

Indeed. Overnight I had overhauled my course and infused it with new life. It reminded me of the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" where Dorothy's farmhouse plops down in Munchkinland and the screen converts from sepia to living color. There was just no going back after that.

And I, too, have found a place where I intend to dwell for a while, at least until something better than YouTube comes along.

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