Hans Rosling: It’s Easier to Reach Fame Than Impact

Hans Rosling is a perfect case study in the potential impact of a single great presentation shared via social media. As a professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinskaya Institute, Rosling has spent years conducting research into the paralytic disease Konzo in Africa, developed a stunning public resource for global development data visualization – gapminder.org – and worked tirelessly to dispel myths about global development. Rosling’s superstar moment, however, came with this now-famous TED talk:

If you haven’t seen it, the TED website nicely summarizes the effect of his presentation work:

What sets Rosling apart isn’t just his apt observations of broad social and economic trends, but the stunning way he presents them. Guaranteed: You’ve never seen data presented like this. By any logic, a presentation that tracks global health and poverty trends should be, in a word: boring. But in Rosling’s hands, data sings. Trends come to life. And the big picture — usually hazy at best — snaps into sharp focus.

I recently asked Rosling about lessons learned using social media, and his advice on teaching in the digital age (Rosling’s comments in red):

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about using social media for teaching and outreach?

It is easier to reach fame than impact. If it’s so personal, you run the risk of standing in the way of your content.

The issue of entrepreneurialism and outreach is particularly tricky for academics hoping to use social media for impact. There’s much to be said for using emotion and passion as the vehicle for conveying information, and Rosling seems to succeed here because he balances intense passion with very high quality information and analysis.

Most of us fear the label of an empty self-promoter, and many of us are uncomfortable with taking responsibility for the development and maintenance of our own personal ‘brands’. However, for academics, actively managing their online identity, exploring new ways to generate wider community interest in their work and developing a more authentic personal presentations are significant professional skills we should be developing. As the academic market continues to undergo transformation, more of us will need to get comfortable promoting our work and ideas outside of the classroom.

What’s the single most important piece of advice you would give to someone just starting out in university-level teaching?

Pick the subjects and courses that really interest you rather than those that are predicted to give you nice job and salary, but study what you study very hard and go deeper and broader than what is required.
This is a tricky issue for new academics, as the pressure for secure positions and tenure strongly impacts decisions about how we approach our work. As a new academic, should you follow your passions and expect that the security will follow, or chase the security in order to have the freedom to follow your passion?

The depth of study recommendation goes hand-in-hand with the issue of passion. A challenge for both students and teachers these days is learning how to work with an unprecedented volume of digital information to develop solid analysis. Online search can promote an over-reliance on readily-accessible, superficial sources, and can offer students an easy way out of deeper research and contemplative consideration of sources. Access to nearly unlimited digital information presents tremendous opportunities for accessing new information, but also presents potential paralysis for those who haven’t developed a nose for quality sources and an understanding of what constitutes sufficient research. Too much information can be just a debilitating as too little, and establishing that balance should be a key research skill we help our students develop.

Are there any special skills we should be teaching our students in the digital age that are different than those we would have taught them in the past?

Critical thinking, reasoning and a quest for sources of all information. And when in doubt, rely on Wikipedia. It is amazingly good, especially if you carefully read the history of the text of interest.

Closely following on the last point, the use of Wikipedia by students is a deeply contentious issue among academics. Wikipedia has become the first, and often the last stop for many students in their research, and for many has become the symbol of a superficial approach to learning that exchanges depth of original knowledge for ease of access. I know of many academics who strongly warn their students away from the site (and refuse to accept references to the site in writing assignments), with warnings about the unreliability of crowd-sourced information.

While there is much to be said for an approach to deep knowledge that relies on the analysis of original source material and peer-reviewed academic writing, Rosling’s point should be taken for a number of reasons.

- It’s foolish to expect that students will simply ignore Wikipedia, as it simply covers too many subjects with useful depth. Often it can serve as a good orientation and entry point for new subjects, and a venue for cross checking certain kinds of information.

- One of our tasks as teachers should be to help students orient themselves within the flood of information available on the internet, and learn how to identify quality, reliable information. Learning how to identify the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia (and other crowd-sourced materials) and of finding reliable ways of digging deeper into topics should be an important part of digital literacy. Exploring this issue also holds many embedded lessons about the kinds of issues that crowds handle well, and those they handle poorly.

- As Rosling says, a careful reading of the discussion section of Wikipedia entries can be an excellent way to see the development of collective knowledge. If you’re unfamiliar with this side of Wikipedia, just click on the ‘Discussion’ tab in the upper right corner of each page entry:

An interesting example of a Wikipedia discussion page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Certainly, it’s as uneven and imperfect as the rest of the site, but to throw Wikipedia out of our classrooms because of its flaws ignores the much deeper lessons we could be teaching our students about managing massive amounts of information and developing meaningful, up-to-date analytical skills in the digital age.

Incidentally, if you want to see more of Rosling in action, this is my personal favorite Rosling lecture, given in 2009 at the State Department:

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 140 other followers