Fast-forward learning with screencasting

Going beyond traditional models of technical education

As I continue to explore and develop screencasting, I’m finding new and unexpected uses for it. Here’s one that took me completely by surprise.

A few weeks ago, my blog featured a screencast with Jason Hunter, a Java expert now working for Mark Logic. Jason’s current fascination (and now mine) is the XML-oriented query language, XQuery. During our 12-minute demo/discussion, he alternated between applications shown in a browser and code exposition in a command shell.

A few days later, inspired by what Jason had shown me, I began working with the Mark Logic engine myself. As is my custom when learning a new programming environment, I opened up a flock of browser tabs. Some I filled with documentation about the XQuery language, others with code examples.

And then a funny thing happened. I found myself ignoring all those tabs and returning again and again to the screencast. Jason’s demos were springboards for the things I wanted to do, and his code narration had shown me how to do them.

The real “aha” moment came when I needed to know the name of the function that the application server uses to emit an HTTP Content-Type header. This is a classic Catch-22. You want the name of a function, but you need that very name in order to look it up. Lacking it, you scan tables of contents and indexes looking for names that connote what you’re seeking. Like every programmer, I’ve been stuck on the horns of this dilemma more times than I care to admit.

In this case, although I couldn’t name what I was looking for, I was dead sure I’d seen it. What’s more, I had a strong sense of where, on the timeline of the screencast, Jason had shown it to me. Sure enough I found it there, looked up the details in the documentation, finished my task, and moved on to the next one.

After this pattern repeated four or five times, it struck me that something rather profound was going on. Information architects, and I count myself among them, like to say that all information retrieval boils down to two basic modes: navigation and search. Often, as when I’m learning a new programming language, I rely on both. The documentation supplies a set of navigational views: by language syntax, by function, by task, by concept. Invariably, however, my mental map doesn’t quite sync with these views, so I’m off to Google to sample some other people’s mental maps.

With video playback at my disposal, though, fast-forward and rewind trumped navigation and search. It wasn’t just that Jason had transferred parts of his mental map to me in the ancient way: monkey see, monkey do. His live performance merely showed me what was possible. I still had to revisit scenes in order to learn the details, and thanks to the video, I could.

People with seemingly superhuman memories give us clues about how this works. When asked about their talent, they invariably say they’ve learned to hang information on a narrative that structures what they know and makes it easy to access. We’re hardwired to tell ourselves -- and one another -- stories, and to filter our understanding of the world through them.

Civilization took a great leap forward when we learned how to write stuff down. Now we’re learning to film our stories and to TiVo them. Fasten your seat belt.