Creating virality in education – some thoughts

So, we had the flash debate on twitter about creating virality in education (I'll reflect on the success of that in a separate post). As promised here is some synthesis and thoughts.

What does virality mean?
Inevitably some of the discussion was around what we mean by something being viral. Is it the same as a meme? Does it just mean something that is passed on by 'word of mouth'? Can we define the key characteristics of a viral idea? AJ suggested that one factor was novelty and JoeNicholls suggested that it needed to provide a quick meaningful return on effort.

This return on investment is interesting in virality I think. At it's most basic a viral idea is simply someone forwarding a link or resource – a retweet in Twitter, or passing on a YouTube clip in Facebook. This is potentially useful, but as there is no modification by the transmitter, it is of limited educational use.

Next in terms of engagement we have a blog meme – these usually have a strict format for you to follow, but require content creation by the transmitter within these guidelines.

Lastly, we have an idea that catches on, more of a meme in the Dawkins sense than the formalised blog meme. This is an idea that causes a reaction in people often because it encapsulates a concept neatly. A recent example is Jim Groom's edupunk, which caused a proliferation of blog posts and debate. In this sense the concept is viral, because it spread rapidly within a week, but the spread was caused by the creation of new content, and discussion. It is this type of engagement and reaction that I would propose we want to see in education.

Courtesy of Crappy Graphs, I have tried to summarise this below:


Can it be used in education?
I also pondered the negatives of virality, which for me are that it can come across as a bit desperate (please make my idea go viral), it can be irritating (ie when you get sent urban myths which someone has forwarded by email in the belief they are true), and it can just promote repetition (at the bottom left of my graph). AJ suggested it can be perceived as social, rather than authorative and in education both students and staff place great value on 'authority'. Carmen Tschofen was wary of commandeering virality for education.

I think the wariness arises from invading student space, but also from promoting a form of surface level learning. Can you really teach quantum physics by virality? Well, probably not all of it, but you might get students to think about it by creating a viral idea such as 'if we lived at the quantum level…' (eg 'I could be at home and at school at the same time').

So what?
A possible accusation of all this is that it is a tautology – we have such a loose definition of virality that if something catches on we say 'it went viral'. But, I do feel there is something for educators to look at in this. Why do some YouTube videos catch on and get millions of views? Why do some ideas catch on and create the type of discussion we would love to foster in education.

So my suggestion is that alongside what we do normally, it would be worth attempting to create a viral idea in a course, even if it is to provide light relief and discussion with each other. And the good ones will be shared, and err, go viral.


  1. Really good post. You’ve taken the ideas in the flash debate and pulled them together in a way that makes sense to me. And you have me thinking about what I would *like* to be the viral idea from the parts of the course I am involved in.

  2. BobK99 says:

    Hmm. Interesting ideas. But isn’t the problem skirted round in your last para? Earlier on you ask what makes an idea ‘go viral’, but there you say ‘it would be worth attempting to create a viral idea in a course’…. Yeah, but how? Most FC users seem to me to prefer chisels and blocks of stone – e.g. joint documents created by attaching incrementing RTF files (rather than, say, using a Cohere Group).

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