Watchknow: The ultimate educational video/wiki mashup

It may show its Wikipedia pedigree a bit, but Watchknow is a powerful platform that can support technology-enhanced learning in many ways.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

There are two words that have a tendency to work teachers into a frenzy. And not a good frenzy either. Actually there are several such words, from Google to ain't to "Teacher-I-couldn't-find-any-information-so-I-didn't-write-the-paper-on-volcanos." But the two that really get them grumbling about the damned Internet and the dumbing down of our students are Wikipedia and YouTube.

Sure, some teachers have embraced one or both, while others have developed their own extensive video libraries (often hosted on YouTube) and their own wiki instances. Most, however, see these tools as distractions and repositories of far too much junk to be useful. How many teachers do you know who prohibit the use of Wikipedia for student research? And how many system administrators block YouTube?

YouTube can, in fact, be a huge time drain. How many fighting videos, skating videos, Justin Beiber clips, and stupid pet tricks can anyone watch? The answer, of course is millions.

YouTube, however, also has vast, rich collections of educational videos produced by teachers, students, parents, professors, and professionals. This nearly 2-hour lecture from Stanford professor Leonard Susskind on special relativity pretty much says it all. The guy comes up with string theory and you get to listen to his physics lectures on YouTube.

This is a bit of a circuitous introduction to Watchknow, but for a company that was started by the cofounder of Wikipedia and looks a whole lot like a Wikipedia-YouTube mashup with some apple graphics to suggest education, it's worth a bit of background and a bit of sales. It's worth it because Watchknow is a great resource as it stands right now, but also because it just formally launched itself as a powerful teaching and learning platform open to anyone for free.

As described on the Watchknow website,

The Vision behind WatchKnow is simple:

Free educational videos delivered over the Internet. Viewed any time, from anywhere.

We believe that everyone should have the same opportunity to learn. The best way to make this possible, we believe, is to organize into one, super directory the hundreds of thousands of good videos currently available on the Internet. To make this a reality, we invite teachers, instructors and educators to suggest videos for inclusion into our directory, and then to review, approve, and assign those videos into appropriate categories using a wiki framework and philosophy.

Their slogan is "Videos for students to learn from. Organized." Watchknow's CEO, Dr. Joe Thomas (who took the reigns recently from Wikipedia co-founder, Dr. Larry Sanger) is a bit more straight-forward:

“Think of WatchKnow as YouTube meets Wikipedia...Research shows that using video in the classroom improves learning. Whether the subject is Pablo Picasso, the Peloponnesian War or polynomial equations, WatchKnow delivers a one-stop online resource for enriching and enhancing the learning experience.”

On Tuesday, Watchknow took this a step further, formally launching their "Classroom" feature, allowing educators of all sorts to create their own Watchknow, leveraging resources they have created, as well as the entire Watchknow library. This page linked here includes both a video describing Watchknow Classrooms as well as information on how to create one. At the same time, Watchknow launched an iPhone app (Android is coming).

Perhaps what struck me most, though, was the infectious passion with which Dr. Thomas described Watchknow's efforts when I interviewed him last week. He spoke of their aggressive timelines and upcoming capabilities to present the directory in Spanish with more languages to follow. He talked about his own use of Watchknow with his home-schooled daughters and its effectiveness as a learning tool. He spoke of the safety of the videos (all are reviewed by at least two teacher volunteers and a built-in rating and flagging system ensures that the best videos percolate to the top for teachers to discover quickly in their limited time for prep) and he described an age-based filtering system that, once again, allows for instructors to quickly identify resources they need.

Watchknow, as he explained, is lucky to have a dedicated benefactor who can provide significant funding as well as a strong community and network of volunteers (in true wiki fashion) who allow the company to get by with a relatively minimal staff. This allows them to focus the not-for-profit company on pulling the best resources not only from YouTube, but also from eHow, Vimeo, TeacherTube, and many other sources.

This isn't so much about being a Wikipedia with video, however. The wiki structure lends itself to intuitive organization and community involvement. After all, there aren't any other places where comprehensive, categorical, drill-down menus of educational videos exist. Other educational video sites rely on text-based search only or broad categories that can make it difficult for instructors to prepare a lesson or even a full curriculum supplemented by rich multimedia.

Watchknow isn't a virtual classroom environment or a learning management system. It's a catalog of great educational content with a supportive community and a highly usable platform that can now be used directly by teachers to create their own catalogs. These instructor-driven catalogs do, however, allow for the assignment of certain video resources for enrolled students.

There's the key word: Watchknow is a resource. Those book closets of VHS tapes can go away and teachers and students can watch supplemental materials when and where they want. Welcome to the next phase of educational video. Here's another quick video of Watchknow in action in the classroom with some additional perspectives from teachers and Dr. Thomas.

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