Lessons for educators in success of YouTube

Net Results: Video-sharing website increasingly favoured as education resource

Some US students rate YouTube more highly as an education source than the traditional textbook, according to a study by Pearson Education. Photograph: Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe via Getty Images

Some US students rate YouTube more highly as an education source than the traditional textbook, according to a study by Pearson Education. Photograph: Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe via Getty Images

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Could you learn more from YouTube than a textbook? Apparently some US students seem to think so, with the video-sharing website rating more highly as an education source than the traditional textbook.

That’s according to a study by Pearson Education, which compared attitudes of millennials and Generation Z students towards technology and traditional learning methods.

Surprisingly, millennials felt textbooks were a better information resource, with their younger counterparts opting for YouTube.

You’d be forgiven for recoiling in horror at the thought. At first glance it seems like an absolutely ludicrous thought. Textbooks are full of useful facts and information, while YouTube has everything from conspiracy theories to people eating Tide Pods for likes, shares and subscribers, all in a bid to build up enough of a following to get on the company’s monetisation programme.

Khan Academy

But as valid as many of the criticisms are, YouTube is home to plenty of educational content too, and the notion that some of the content may have as much educational value as traditional textbooks isn’t as far fetched as you might think. Take the Khan Academy, for example. It started in 2005, set up by Sal Khan originally as a resource to help tutor family members. He realised his videos were being watched by others, and he set up the formal academy in 2008. The online resource now has a staff of more than 150 people, with content experts to help vet the videos, and covers everything from basic maths and geography to economics and humanities. The non-profit is one of the good guys of YouTube.

But that said, you can’t ignore the pitfalls to the consumer content site. It was only a matter of months ago that YouTube found itself at the centre of a storm over inappropriate content that seemed to be targeting children.

It was remarkably easy to stumble across. Child-themed content with familiar characters suddenly had a darker twist. Peppa Pig visiting the dentist became Peppa being tortured by the dentist. And YouTube found itself under fire for failing to prevent some inappropriate content targeted at children from slipping through its filters for the YouTube Kids app.

The company introduced some new parental controls to help combat that but my four year old is still banned from even YouTube Kids unless someone is watching over her shoulder, because you can’t trust assurances that something inappropriate won’t wriggle past the filters – and nor should you.

But she’s at an age when it’s easy to do it. For other parents with older children, including the age group targeted by the Pearson survey, it’s a tougher problem to solve. In the past, the advice was simple: have the family computer somewhere where the screen could be easily seen, such as the sitting room. These days, the notion of a family computer seems a bit quaint. Children are being handed smartphones at a younger age, and therefore access to a wider world than ever before – with all the accompanying dangers.

Tighter criteria

The YouTube situation in particular is one partly of its own making. In a bid to encourage people to create popular content, the company spawned somewhat of a monster instead, full of algorithm-friendly nonsense designed to go viral and hit YouTube’s magic numbers. Earlier this year, YouTube decided it was time for a change, and tightened up the criteria for joining its partner programme to try to weed out spammers, scammers and impersonators. However, 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of content watched in the previous 12 months is a tall order for newer, less established channels, and the end result may be that newer creators will find it more difficult to make money from their content.

But in the interests of fairness, here are a list of things I learned to do because I watched a few videos on YouTube: knead bread properly; crochet; design a mock backstage pass; replace the ink in my printer cartridges; basic coding; whip up homemade slime; how to make play dough; how to make an Olaf from Frozen toy; the correct actions for “Baby Shark”; plus a heap of other kid-themed stuff that I’ve already forgotten but will still be there in YouTube should I need to go back again for a refresher course.

YouTube has it place, but it’s still evolving. Even the Pearson survey – and it’s just one report – says we’re not quite ready to ditch teachers for algorithms; Gen Z respondents still put a high value on the role of the teacher, preferred to take notes on paper rather than work digitally and like to work with other students in a classroom setting. In years to come, YouTube could play a more active role in our children’s education. Just with a note of caution.

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