Learning while laughing, compliments of the Web

While college students around the country are protesting and sitting in, lamenting whether their college education is worth its high cost, hundreds of thousands of people are logging on to YouTube class lectures and signing up for free online MIT courses. The democratization of education online lets people learn when they’re ready to — and best of all it’s free.

Of all the education options online, I return most often to animated speeches, a style of teaching that has been encouraged by a small group of artists since the 1970s as a way to make the spoken word stick for the world’s visual learners. Animated videos from the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts (RSA) have become YouTube hits. And other online educators, most recently Open University with its new history series, have followed suit. Pairing the sometimes dense theoretical language of philosophy with the cartoonists’ sketches, the videos offers bite-size lessons for a do-it-yourself style of education.

The RSA Animates series has anthropologists, historians and philosophers talk off-screen, while artist Andrew Park sketches the unfolding theorems on a giant white board. Beneath his hands, world maps merge into portraits of people hard at work. Lightbulbs spring from black-and-white skulls. Gold coins spill out of animated treasure chests.

Park’s drawing is speeded up to match the words, making them come alive in an evolving comic strip. The somewhat dry-sounding lectures — “The Empathic Civilization,” “Changing Education Paradigms” or “The Divided Brain,” to name a few — become sprawling, hilarious lessons.

And people have been watching in droves. Almost every RSA video, which last on average 12 minutes, has been viewed by more than a million people. The most popular ones rake in around 14 million viewers. The mission of RSA: 21st century enlightenment. The videos provide just that.

Animated lectures offer in-depth lessons wrapped in an attractive cartoon packaging.

RSA isn’t alone in the animated teaching field. Open University offers “60-Second Adventures in Thought” and “The History of the English Language in Ten Animated Minutes.” Goofy cartoons help analyze the Grandfather’s Paradox in time travel, quantum mechanics or the theory of infinite reduction. Shakespeare, biblical passages and scientific language pop up as line drawings in the “History of the English Language.”

The cartoons are not as interactive as RSA Animates, as they are already drawn, but they share the same British humor with smart asides and a casual, breezy approach to difficult subjects. Other organizations, such as ProPublica, have noticed the lessons: adding animation to explain a dense subject, as the group did with a short music video on fracking.

Using cartoons to teach is no revolutionary tactic. Disney did it famously with “Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land.” In the 1959 short film, the squawking star stumbled through arithmetic and geometry lessons, wrestling with Galileo and Archimedes. The RSA and Open University iterations are shortened versions of what Disney started, and open to anyone with a Internet connection. They are philosophical lessons in the guise of an amuse-bouche.

The lessons linger because of the merger of visual and aural teaching. Studies show that most people learn visually, aurally or kinetically — you take in information through seeing, hearing or doing. Animators of the future need only to add in the third element to this already powerful combination.

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