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South Korean online trend helps GTA students recreate group study while physically distancing

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered libraries and coffee shops, some Toronto students are turning to an online trend to overcome the loneliness of studying by themselves. 

It’s called “Gong-bang,” short for “gongbu bangsong” which translates to “study broadcast” — and it’s a growing trend that originated in South Korea, where many students study for up to 18 hours every day to prepare for exams. 

Similar to the popular “meokbang” trend, also known as “mukbang” or “eating show,” study broadcasts have also attracted a niche online community — one that includes University of Toronto student Rachel McKenna-Marshall, 24.

She’s been watching these videos daily since her classes shut down.

“With [these videos] and self isolating, you can recreate that feeling of being in the library and having people studying around you,” said McKenna-Marshall, who’s working towards her masters in architecture.

She was already watching these videos once a week to help her study before public health officials mandated physical distancing across Ontario.

While it may not be the most riveting content one can find online, these videos have accumulated millions of views on YouTube — with many channels now solely dedicated to videos of people studying in complete silence for several hours at a time.

Flipping a page or the clicking of a keyboard is often all you can hear in a video. It’s intended to mimic the environment of a library to help viewers concentrate on studying and nothing else.  

Some videos play mellow music, while others have white noise in the background. 

Study broadcasts are often recorded live and streamed onto platforms like AfreecaTV, a Korean live-streaming platform, or Twitch, while others are uploaded as videos onto YouTube and are meant to be rewatched at any time. 

Studying in intervals 

McKenna-Marshall says she finds it hard to focus in her home, but the videos allow her to transform it into a study space.

The pomodoro technique, a commonly used method in these “study-with-me” videos, consists of 30-minute ongoing intervals in which 25 minutes is dedicated to studying with a five-minute break at the end of each interval. It’s intended to instill a sense of urgency and work with the time you have, while also taking a short break throughout. 

U of T graduate Nasir Kharma started his own YouTube channel Kharma Medic two years ago to share advice with other students considering applying to medical school.

At first, I’ll be honest, I found it a little bit of a strange concept …– Nasir Kharma

Now studying medicine at King’s College in London, the 24-year-old has grown his channel to 145,000 subscribers and amassed more than seven million views.

Kharma says he had never heard of study-with-me videos until one of his viewers asked him to record one.

He says he had to Google it. 

Kharma’s YouTube channel has racked up millions of views and 145,000 subscribers. (Sara Jabakhanji/CBC)

“At first, I’ll be honest, I found it a little bit of a strange concept. I thought, ‘Why would you want to watch somebody else studying if you are studying?”‘ Kharma said. 

His first “study with me” video got 170,000 hits, which was more than double the views on his other videos.

“Most of the feedback would be something along the lines of, ‘I haven’t been productive for a week and this really helped me sit down and actually do all the work that I needed to do,’ or you know, ‘I’ve got an upcoming exam and this is perfect,'” he said.

The majority of the students watching his videos are from Canada, the U.S. and India.

Kharma says this study method doesn’t work for him but he understands why it works for his subscribers.

“If any students are struggling with sort of structuring their time or finding the discipline to sit down and work, then I think the study-with-me video would be a very powerful way to motivate them,” he said.

Connection in a time of physical distancing

It would not be surprising if more people began watching these videos because they “really do help create connection” in this time of physical distancing, said Michelle Cho, an assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s department of East Asian Studies. Her research focuses on popular aesthetics in Korean film, media and popular culture.

Any kind of live streaming that is filmed individually can capture a sense of “togetherness” that appeals to many, Cho said 

“If you can connect with other people and know that other people are out there doing the same thing, it creates a kind of sense of solidarity and accountability, even if you are still sitting in your room by yourself.”

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