TechBurst Encourages Students to Share Knowledge

Geek Culture

A TechBurst is a short, sharable video that explains a single educational concept in an entertaining and compelling way. Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) recently concluded their first TechBurst competition with an awards ceremony on April 16.

Last Fall, Georgia Tech students were invited to create short-form instructional videos on topics that ranged from Taylor polynomials to designing a lamp. With $5,000 in prizes at stake, judges considered a mix of pedagogy and entertainment to determine the winners, using criteria like technical correctness, teaching approach, creativity, and the ability to engage audiences. Aaron Morris, Rachel Cornelius, Matt Duane, and Clair Matthews took first place with their video, “Constructing the ‘Perfect Cube’ in Biomedical Engineering.” The second- and third-place entries provided explanations of gravitational pull and circuits.

According to Richard DeMillo, Director of C21U, TechBurst is part of a worldwide peer-to-peer learning movement. Last March, Alan Alda challenged scientists to do a better job with their own explanations. Drawing from a childhood memory, Alda established the Flame Challenge, a contest in which scientists define a flame and eleven-year-olds from around the world judge the entries.

“The difference,” explains DeMillo, “is that TechBursts are derived from real university courses and curricula.”

Focusing mainly on STEM classes, the future of TechBurst will include the development of material for an entire course. DeMillo hopes this project will fill a gap for upper-level university course instruction.

TechBurst WinnersTechBurst Winners

C21U Director Rich DeMillo (left) and TechBurst Coordinator Emily Ivey (right) stand with the students of the first place video (photo: C21U)

Currently, only Georgia Tech students are eligible to enter the competition. The inaugural event has drawn enough interest from around the world, however, to consider opening up the competition to other institutions in the future.

“We were surprised at the number of professors who were interested in contributing to the project and incorporating TechBurst into their classrooms,” said DeMillo. The Distinguished Professor of Computing and former CTO for Hewlett-Packard Company noted that students wanted to engage with their peers, teaching what they know and gaining insights from other students who had struggled with the same concepts.

Peer instruction can prove an effective path to comprehension. One of the chief evangelists of student-to-student teaching, Harvard’s Eric Mazur, argues the more expert you become, the more difficult it is to teach introductory courses:

“Imagine two students sitting next to one another, Mary and John. Mary has the right answer because she understands it. John does not. Mary’s more likely, on average, to convince John than the other way around because she has the right reasoning.”

But here’s the irony. “Mary is more likely to convince John than professor Mazur in front of the class,” Mazur says.

“She’s only recently learned it and still has some feeling for the conceptual difficulties that she has whereas professor Mazur learned [the idea] such a long time ago that he can no longer understand why somebody has difficulty grasping it.”

Crowd-sourcing education, particularly with less experienced scholars, can produce mixed results. The ideas captured on video by students are not always correct. As DeMillo noted, however, that is the nature of experimentation. “This is meant to be a start of a thread of conversations among students, where other students annotate videos and correct errors.”

Part of the Georgia Tech College of Computing, C21U is a living laboratory seeking fundamental change in higher education. It is encourages faculty and students to innovate ways to improve access, quality, and the value of a university degree.

“C21U’s goal is to experiment with cutting-edge ideas in higher education by taking change that is occurring at the periphery, like Khan Academy, and incorporating it within an established university,” said DeMillo. “TechBurst fits into that scheme because it takes your conventional lecture and breaks it apart so that it can be reformed and reused in new ways.”

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