Friday, September 5, 2014

Young YouTube creators learn more than you think

Your kid starts a YouTube channel, or a blog, or some other creative outlet online. Should you support it or kill it? Will it take time and attention away from school work, and just increase their likely over-spent “screen time”? My 13- year-old son’s experience with his YouTube channel - Techspective - has been an eye opener for me and I thought it would be worth sharing why I have become a strong supporter* (and subscriber) and share the long list of skills I see him learning in this endeavor.

Within the past year, my son, Jeremy, started showing a deep interest in making videos. He was mostly inspired by the other young talents he saw on YouTube (one in particular) and by a friend of his, who had started a business making videos for local sports and events.

Jeremy saved every penny he earned from babysitting, dog-walking and landscaping odd-jobs and bought his first DSLR camera. As his geek dad, I was interested in supporting his technical interests and approved of an experimental YouTube channel that he started with his friend. Their early videos were simple - and while not exactly professional, they showed a clear production quality and potential that was, frankly, surprising. They were constantly learning new technology and quickly expanded from simple videos to live video streams - where other people (mostly their friends) could join in real-time to discuss technology and ask live questions of the two self-proclaimed "mobile gadget reviewers". They were energized and it was fun to watch. After a few months, the two young video producers decided to go their own way "professionally" (his friend still produces on the Mobile Gadget channel, while Jeremy produces on Techspective). In the past few months I've watched the quality of their video production go from "not bad" to "wow!". Checking myself every once in a while to be sure I wasn’t overly biased, I’ve shared links with friends and others, only to confirm my view - their videos have become high quality, useful and fun to watch.

My main concern in all this was the time being spent on his hobby versus time on his school work, sports, outdoor activities and actual (non-virtual) social activities. Was he too focused on improving the quality and subscriber numbers of his YouTube videos at the expense of his school grades? While I knew he was getting a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction, was it worth risking lower grades at school? It was that internal dilemma that motivated me to consider more concretely all the skills my son was developing in pursuit of his creative and technical passion.

One night in particular inspired me to analyze this deeper. He had been typing away on his computer for what seemed like a couple of hours, until I finally asked,

“What are you working on?” (with a little bit of “what the heck?” in my tone ;)
“A script", he said (with a little bit of “what the heck?” right back at me ;)

He was meticulously writing the words to his next video - painstakingly considering every sentence in his story until it sounded just right. In his mind he was simultaneously planning out his “B roll” video footage. He was composing a story, using advanced vocabulary and other language skills, orchestrating his story to a video backdrop, which he then filmed and edited. The quality of that finished video jumped several levels from his previous work. It struck me at that moment that this was a much more complex and multi-faceted assignment than much of what he had done in school.

Continuing that analysis, I came up with the following quick summary of the skills I’ve seen this young video producer develop and practice over the course of his early experiments:

Product Management:
This is a high-level way to describe how many of the underlying skills come together into something I would describe as “leadership”. Without explicitly thinking of it, he is identifying his market (who he was trying to reach), the product he aimed to provide, the identity and quality of his product, the methods of production and delivery - everything to go from idea to launch. It’s the “figure it out as I go” method of training mostly - but in the end, he got a feeling for what my job is as a PM - to define, launch and manage a product. In this he also starts learning a critical professional and life skill - the trade offs that must be made between time, quality and cost to get something done.

Story Creation & Script Writing:
Well-produced videos require a strong story, and once he started using scripts, the stories he was telling became more complete and interesting. He was even using skills he learned in early story-writing from school, whether he knew it or not.

Research:
Every video produced has many hours of research behind it. While he might rattle off product specs or references to tech industry events in the matter of seconds in the finished video, there were likely hours of research into product details, industry news sites, blogs and more. It’s not easy work, as he has learned, to create a visual story which has not just his insights, but facts.

Public Speaking:
This is likely the most compelling part that many kids, and adults, can use - practicing speaking out loud, even to a virtual crowd on the other end of a video camera lens. I’ve overheard Jeremy speaking his scripts out loud and then recording many takes of his “performance” in front of the camera. I cannot emphasize enough how valuable this is - for a teenager to not only practice speaking “his/her lines” but also to see him/herself on video. It builds self-esteem and helps kids gain an appreciation for how they are perceived by others. He also learned that writing a script - even if not followed precisely - reduces the “ummmm”s in vocal storytelling.

Communication:
Put several of these skills together, and you get better communication skills. This is something that many kids opportunistically avoid until there are specifically forced to in school or other activities. The more they avoid it, the harder it is to do when they need to - so they avoid it again - and the “lack of communication” downward spiral continues. By pursuing a creative channel they enjoy, they are developing and practicing a much more sophisticated communication style. Video-making, blogging, even emailing, can be fantastic exercises for improving communication skills.

Conciseness and Clarity of message:
This is an area in which I saw clear improvement over time. For video in particular, I think it’s easy to watch yourself on screen and understand how your message can be improved. That improvement is often in message clarity and cutting out the unnecessary (not just “the umms”, but even unnecessary or redundant information and commentary).

Filming:
Taking video can be easy, but as you set your sights to higher quality, you start thinking “what will make this shot more interesting” and you become a director and producer. I’m a firm believer that even a phone cam can be adequate for great videos, especially for beginners. Learning all the other skills will take plenty of time anyway before worrying about high-end camera equipment.

Video Editing:
It doesn’t take long for a video hobbyist to discover that post-production editing is the bulk of the work. The combination of creative skills and technical software skills can turn a bunch of junky clips into a great video. Jeremy learned a few video editing apps, finally landing on Adobe Premiere (that choice itself also required research and decision making) and he honed his creative skills in a big way.

Sound Production:
An otherwise good video can be ruined quickly with bad sound. There’s a whole set of occupations in just this one aspect of production, and a YouTuber has to learn at least the basics.

Visual Design:
The YouTube channel, the logo, the supporting website, the twitter page, the G+ page, etc… it all requires some design work. Through experimentation and practice comes not only skills, but the confidence to try next time.

Animation:
Similar to editing and design, this is an area which combines highly technical software skills with creativity. It’s not a necessary component of video making, but if the opportunity arises (which it did in this case), it’s a fun, challenging skill to learn. (Apple’s Motion product was the tool of choice)

Marketing:
Getting views on your video and subscribers to your channel is not all abra-ca-beiber magic. It takes work. A successful indie YouTuber needs to support the channel with supporting social interactions which are thoughtful, well-timed and relevant. This is a marketable skill too - many businesses would pay you well to do this effectively for them.

Collaboration:
It’s rare for any effort to be fully “solo” - and I watched Jeremy collaborate with friends, teachers, business owners and others in ways that he never would have been exposed to without the goals of his YouTube channel to motivate him.

Competition:
Ultimately, a YouTube video artist is competing for attention. Ethical competition is something you learn in games and sports - but you can also learn it in the digital world.

Dealing with inappropriate behavior:
Some YouTube commenters have nothing constructive to say, and I can’t say anything good about them except that they help others learn the art of “reactive restraint”. Kids learn quickly how to engage, but mostly, not to engage. They learn this better than adults in my experience - and better to learn this skill early. These kids will send less of those escalating, reactive responses we see too often even in the most professional environments.

Entrepreneurship:
Put all the product design, creation, execution, marketing and communication bits together, and you have an entrepreneur. While it might not be a money-making operation, it is an operation. In Jeremy’s case, he has used his skills already for some paid video work for business owners in the local area.

So far, I'm a huge supporter* of Jeremy's video-making hobby - and proud to be one of Techspective’s (and Mobile Gadget’s) first subscribers. Sure, I truly enjoy watching his videos, but more than that, I love watching his skills grow through self-directed learning and experimentation - not because someone told him to learn something, but because he’s motivated to achieve a goal that requires learning. He is pursuing a goal he is passionate about, which happens to be creative, complex, interesting and relevant. I could never suppress his natural desire to learn - that would be inexcusable - even if it does mean he might get a lower grade on his next history test.


[*caveat: Kids shouldn't be doing anything online without first being given strong guidance on how to stay safe and out of trouble. If you need information to keep yourself or kids you know safe, start here]


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Make a calender with (and on) a Spreadsheet

When we were still running 2Web Technologies, and showing potential customers how our product, XL2Web, could convert spreadsheets into Web Apps, I spent much of my free time creating fun and useful (and some not-so-useful) spreadsheets which worked really well as web apps. Spreadsheets for me actually became a development platform for creating web apps. I created a whole site of sample apps generated from spreadsheets (sadly, that site is no longer live) and I would use it to show off our little start-up's product to potential customers and anyone else who would listen. Over the past few years, I have intermittently taken one or more of those old spreadsheets and converted them into "our" product - Google Sheets... but I haven't had much of a catalyst to do that recently.  Today, for some reason, I decided to convert a semi-useful one I re-discovered.

The Calendar Maker Spreadsheet is super simple in what it achieves, and slightly less simple in how it does it. It's practically proof that I had a #spreadsheetaddiction when I created this, since there must be much easier ways to create calendars (...there are, right?) than to create spreadsheet formulas and format them to look semi-pretty.

If you want a copy of this thing so you can actually use it - just click the "MAKE A COPY..." item in the "FILE" menu. Then you just pick the month/year you want for either a full year or one-month calendar (two separate sheets in the spreadsheet), and you've got a calendar you can use... 

With an increased personal focus on Apps for Education, I've found - practically daily - a bunch of inspiring uses of our broader products - Docs, Sheets, Slides, Drawings and more - in the educational context... sometimes directly in teaching students, and sometimes just helping teachers do things better, faster and smarter. I've also been re-inspired by incredibly smart educators who find ways to use technology to improve their teaching, to inspire other educators and to make learning more engaging for kids and adults.  The work of one such educator indirectly inspired me to post to my blog again: @alicekeeler - who writes a prolific blog called TeacherTech, inspiring and guiding educators on ways to use technology effectively in teaching - and - she's also slightly (!) crazy about spreadsheets.



Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Building Buildings in Google Docs

Everyone who knows me knows how excited I get about collaboration - and how especially excited I was when Google Docs' drawing tool was launched as a collaborative editing surface. On a few occasions, I've initiated collaborative scribbling sessions with 3 or 30 people simultaneously, just for the creative kick we all get out of it (an especially active session was triggered by my favorite web-tech blogger, when her quick ping to her followers triggered a flood of creative participants).

When I saw the quality of content a few others had created when we added drawings to the Google Docs Template Gallery, I was inspired to try some myself. So, for a few moments (ahem) per day over the past week, I ventured on a more soloist approach in an attempt to create some useful and realistic-ish drawings of some great city landmark buildings. I initially set out to draw, in rough form, just the Empire State Building. Hmph... that was easy enough - so I just kept going. Transamerica was a bit more challenging, and the Space Needle required some artistic license. My favorite building (second of course to my real favorites), the Chrysler Building, almost made me cry give up - but I persisted and even got that into a form which (when squinting) is acceptable...
So the template drawing is in the gallery (full preview here) - enjoy it, use it, laugh at it, or make fun of my rare obsessive behavior which resulted in these drawings. Maybe next time I'll invite a few dozen of my closest artistic friends to collaboratively create every other landmark building in a tenth of the time ;)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Google Sites - Hiding Site Activity Links

Whenever anyone asks me how they can easily create a web site - guess what I say...
"Get lost freak!" (no, not really, but give me an excuse to use a quote from a kids movie, and I take it)... anyway, I say Google Sites! It really is an easy way to get content up on the web quickly - so while I may be biased, I think Sites is the most accessible tool with the right balance of features and simplicity for the average web user.

There's one thing still about our current version of Sites that I've encountered enough times that I felt I should just post about it and point people here the next 5 times I'm asked:

"How do I get rid of that Recent Site Activity link at the bottom of every page?!"

It's not the intention of most Site authors to give people a link to all the "recent activity" on a site - they just want viewers to see the current version in most cases.

Well, it's not the most obvious thing to find... Here's how to change that:
  1. Sign in to Google Sites and open your site
  2. Click the "More Actions" button on the upper right corner and select "Manage Site" option in the menu.
  3. On the left side under Site Settings, click the "General" Option.
  4. The 8th option down (or so) is called "Access Settings" - which has 2 selectors, labelled:
    • Users who can access site activity:       and
    • Users who can access revision history: 
  5. Set BOTH of those options to "COLLABORATORS ONLY"
  6. Click SAVE CHANGES (at the top or bottom of the page)
Hope that's helpful... ping me here if not (and I promise not to use a silly line from a kids movie to dissuade you).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How to TURN ON the NEW Google Docs editors

You may have heard that Google actually offers a product which lets you create, edit, share and collaborate on spreadsheets, documents, presentations and drawings using only your browser (nothing to download, etc... ) - yeah, yeah, I thought so.
You may have heard that there was a recent update to the product which made the editing experience more realtime, more collaborative and just generally faster and better - yeah, I thought so.
You may have heard that if you are a current user of Google Docs, you need to TURN ON these new editors explicitly - no? You didn't hear that part?  Well - it's only temporary... but you do need to do that!

Enough people (more than 1) have asked me this question, that I thought I should just post a quick How To, so I can point people here once... even though this post will be useless soon, when the new editors are standard for everyone...

So, the story is different for spreadsheet and document editing...

For Spreadsheets - very simple... When you are editing any spreadsheet, just look for the "New Version" link in the upper right side of your browser screen. Once you click that, ALL your spreadsheets will open using the new version of the spreadsheet editor (except for a small number of those which use a couple of lagging features which are not yet supported).   If you decide you need to switch back, do the reverse, and use the "Old Version" link in the upper right.

For Documents - less simple, but easy still.... Click the "Settings" link in the upper right side of your screen. Then, click the "Document Settings" sub-menu. In the dialog which shows up, click the "Editing" tab - and then check the box which says "Create new text documents using the latest version of the document editor. Only New Documents will use the new editor... old documents are currently forced to use the old editor.  Just for now...


One more thing to know - if you are on a Google Apps Domain (meaning at school or work or in an organization which uses Apps), you'll only see that new document editor option if your domain administrator wants you to ;) - so ask them if you don't see it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Amazing feats in collaboration (in nature, not technology)

The Atmosphere conference at Google's Mountain View, CA campus this past Monday was exciting and fun and attended by hundreds of interesting CIOs/CEOs and interesting people - there was even a great set of announcements from our own Google Docs team, which was of course a highlight for me. But, whether or not you believe in cloud computing or have any interest in the technology side, if you have any interest in collaboration, you must watch this video from the conference. This presentation by Janine Benyus, the President of the Biomimicry Institute, was, for me, the most educational, intriguing and awe-inspiring presentation of the whole day (yes, even more than seeing several people edit the same doc or drawing at the same time ;).

It turns out, that as much as we think we're innovating in the area of collaboration, we're actually just catching up and still, perhaps, way behind the collaborative systems present in nature.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is Twitter today's CB Radio? so what...

If you were born after 1975-ish (younger than 35-ish), chances are you won't get this post - but if you were a kid (or a trucker) during the 1960's and 1970's, you might relate. It struck me that the CB radio was basically Twitter - just on a different channel (quite literally) - using audio airwaves rather than the character-based internet. "Citizen Band" (CB) Radios were primarily used by truckers to keep in touch with each other and with a base station - maybe a dispatcher. The CB was their practical tool to communicate. Then, kids and geek hobbyists got a hold of them. I got one as a kid - probably in 1973 - when my dad finally gave in to my persistent begging. My dad certainly made me pay for it - but he risked his life on the ladder to install the antenna... I clearly remember him dropping the antenna once as he almost fell off the ladder. But, even bent, the antenna hooked me up to a world of tweets... voices of other people and truckers with whom I purposelessly interacted (that sound too familiar?).

Then, on a long car ride to Florida, the value of the CB became clear. We took the CB in the car and formed several temporal voice relationships with some truckers on the same route - down i95. On more than one occasion, we were warned of trouble, radar traps, accidents - and the previously useless banter became useful - almost necessary in hindsight.

Some other characteristics of the CB which seem analogous:

  • We had "handles" - names that represented who we wanted to be... sometimes fun, sometimes close to our real personas. The only one I remember was my uncle's: StoneMan. You figure it out.
  • We had our own language, which I think follows police radio language... like 10:4 ("ok") or 10:20 ("location") or "smokey" (policeman). wow... tricky.
  • We had Channels - similar in my mind to #hashtags - but much less traceable.
  • Short Tweets... after all, you could only hold that little button on the side of the mic for so long...
  • CB's were trendy! (tweet tweet!) There was even a hit song by CW McCall called "Convoy"

This loose analogy between Twitter and the CB radio is not very enlightening, unless you want to believe that Twitter will face the same fate. So what was that fate? I'm guessing that hobbyists found more interesting and extendable platforms (not to mention the Internets ;) and truckers still use the CB in it's original form. If it were searchable, linkable, with more traceable social structures and usage patterns and without any locational limitations, maybe CB radios would have kept growing.... or maybe they did keep growing, right out of that stupid box in my room as a kid and into a chat room, then into that phone in my pocket and then into Twitter.

Maybe someone reading this post will take a hint and help those truckers still using CBs by launching a product that has the familiar, voice-based interface of the CB, but with the added the practical advances of Twitter! Traceable, linkable, bit.ly-able, followable CB Radios! ...
Hmmm.  Maybe not.
10:4 good buddy.