The university of YouTube


There are online tutors for everything these days, from learning sign language to
blowing your nose or using a sewing machine. But is teaching yourself on the web as
effective as interacting in a classroom, asks EDEL MORGAN

THINK OF something – anything – you’d like to learn and chances are, there are people queuing up in cyberspace to teach it for free on video tutorials, blogs, forums and websites. It doesn’t matter how banal or unusual the subject matter, you’ll find tutorials to take you through it.

You can learn the basics of buttering bread ( advises short light strokes while holding the knife at a 30-degree angle for an even spread), blowing your nose (’s nurse, Dan Carlson, advises using a tissue and clearing one nostril at a time), the elvish alphabet and even joggling (juggling while jogging).

There are lots of sites on which you can learn a craft or a DIY skill. You can find out how to play a musical instrument, repair an appliance, do a scientific experiment or perfect a sporting technique.

But is learning from a video as effective as interacting with a teacher in a classroom?

We set three challenges, asking people to acquire new skills online, and spoke to some past and perpetual internet students.

Challenge 2:

Learn to blowdry hair:

Eamon McGrane learned to blowdry Edel Morgan’s hair

Is it just me or does every girl secretly wish they had an in-house hair stylist who can do a salon-sleek blowdry?

I’ve gone into battle with my thick frizzy mop and lost so many times that I now get regular professional blowdries. The price has come down – to €20 in some salons – but, even so, I can no longer justify the extravagance of having it done every week.

So when this challenge came up I had a light-bulb moment; what if my husband Eamon could learn to do it from online tutorials? Think of the savings. I wouldn’t abuse it . . . much. I’d only ask him to work his magic once a week, maybe twice if there was a special occasion. He’d never have to witness me having a bad-hair day again. Surely it’s a win-win?

To my surprise he agreed to the challenge but I’m not sure if he considered the implications. He’s no stranger to online tutorials, having already learned how to install a new element in our oven from, saving us more than €100.

He looked at a few websites and picked a lesson by British celebrity hairdresser Richard Ashforth, on because he thought it looked relatively straightforward.

Ashforth’s method involves rapid drying; “a simple technique” in which the head is used “as a roller”. The hair is brushed backwards and forwards with a paddle brush, while the hairdryer points downwards on the hair to flatten cuticles.

The trouble with someone using your head as a roller is that it doesn’t make for a very relaxing experience. And it wasn’t as easy as it looked. We played the video over and over to study the technique because Eamon quickly realised that Ashforth makes it look simple because he has been doing it for years.

When I went upstairs to see the finished result I was quite surprised. It wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t super-sleek but Eamon had somehow managed to get it fairly shiny with minimal frizz.

“It’s a hell of a lot better than you do it yourself,” he remarked as I studied it in the mirror. And he’s right. If this is his first attempt, by next month there’s no reason why Ashforth can’t introduce him to the curling tongs.

Challenge 1:

Learn sign language:

Aisling Byrne learned basic sign language

A few years ago Aisling Byrne, a PR and marketing executive from Galway, was diagnosed with severe hearing loss in her right ear.

“The damage was inoperable and the tests showed that a hearing aid would not help the problem. Thankfully, the hearing in my left ear is above average,” she says.

When she was asked to learn something online she chose sign language “because it might just be beneficial to me some day”. She used online tutorials by the DIT Sign Language Society on YouTube to learn basic phrases and the alphabet.

She also looked at lessons covering greetings and numbers by “mysticvean” on YouTube and found them “as helpful and as clear as they could possibly be. I was surprised, though, to learn that a lot of countries, including Ireland, have their own sign language. It shows my ignorance on the subject but I always thought that sign language was universal.

“The second thing I found is that learning sign language is really, really difficult. I definitely underestimated the challenge. It takes a lot of coordination, practice and determination to master even basic greetings which require the use of two hands, and my delivery of the basic phrases left a lot to be desired.

“I reckon it would take me years of practice to ever reach the speed at which sign language is delivered.”

She also missed the interaction of a classroom. “With online learning you have nobody to tell you if you are making a mistake, so I found myself doubting what I had learnt. I imagine it would be much easier to learn if you had somebody to practise with or converse with.

“I enjoyed trying to learn it and I’d like to continue but would attend a sign-language class.”

Challenge 3:

Learn a sequence dance:

Ray and Olive Poole learned the Alpine Stroll sequence dance

YouTube has already helped Ray Poole keep up with the more experienced modern sequence dancers in the classes he and his wife Olive attend each week.

While Olive has been dancing for 16 years, Ray only started two years ago and uses online tutorials to perfect steps he’s having trouble with, “because I don’t want to be holding up the rest of the class”.

Neither of them has ever learned an entire dance online and, because it’s their first time, they chose the Alpine Stroll, which is a relatively slow, easy dance. It is taught on YouTube by Bill and Sandra from Alexandria’s Dance.

The Pooles began by watching the video every night for a week and then cleared a space in their bedroom to try the steps. “We’d need three times the space that we have in our house to do it properly,” says Ray. “Because we hadn’t room for a full sequence, we had to do it taking baby steps. The space was so tight that we ended up walking each other into the wall at one end of the room.”

He found the videos plain and clear. “They make it look easy, too easy in fact, and for some people it probably is – but not for me,” he says. “While it was helpful, I’d prefer to be able to ask the teacher questions.”

At one point the couple got stuck on the brush, a step in which you lightly tip one foot on the other.

“I prefer to learn the basics first in class and then watch a video,” Ray says. “It’s hard to watch it online and do it at the same time. I don’t think I’d learn a dance from scratch from YouTube again.”

I can do that - putting internet tutorials to work

Perfecting a party piece

There is no end of people who can strum a guitar as their party piece, but how many can play the William Tell Overtureon the spoons?

Stephen Dixon set about teaching himself online three years ago, and now rates himself as quite good.

“I’m not saying I could sit in with The Chieftains but it’s a great party piece,” he says.

There’s no need to break out the family silver: cheap dessertspoons are best, because they’re light and flexible. “There are about four different things you can do on the spoons, and the rest is about practice and speed. It’s not so much music as rhythmic noise, so it lends itself to Irish traditional music or ragtime but is not so good with rock’n’roll or love songs.” Check out his favourite YouTube videos, of the Amazing Scotty Brothers, and Vash on the basics of playing the spoons.

Using YouTube for business

Reuben Evans, or Reuben the Entertainer appears on children’s programme Ready Steady Reubenon weekdays on RTÉ2.

He used the internet for advice on developing an iPhone app aimed at entertaining children. With no background in computers, he found YouTube a revelation. “There are 12-year-old boys giving tutorials who have more programming skills than I have at age 38,” he says. “I find video tutorials more entertaining than reading a page of text. It’s like personal one-on-one tuition.”

While you can’t interact with a YouTube video, you can post questions for the tutor or ask for help on forums. Two websites Evans found particularly useful were and

Meanwhile, Johanne Maher from Co Meath, the entrepreneur behind Matoloki Cushions, learned enough online to set up a successful business making her Day of the Deadand retro cushions.

She learned to use a sewing machine two years ago by watching online tutorials on

“It was so simple,” she says. “It goes through every step, and you can rewind and fast-forward each video until you get the hang of it.”

Using her new skills, Maher creates bold skullhead-covered creations, which have become a hit. She sells her cushions at the Dublin Flea Market and the Ferocious Mingle Market at Newmarket Square, Dublin 8. Also see Matoloki cushions on Facebook.

The tutor

Graham McGinn (24), the “Irish Yo-yo Guy”, began posting his high-octane YouTube tutorials last summer. He says he loves teaching people elaborate tricks he’s created and he spends a lot of time answering questions on forums and YouTube.

He says most toy yo-yos are useless “unless you just want them to go up and down”. To do tricks he says you need a yo-yo with ball bearings.

“When people start to learn they can get discouraged easily,” he says. “They don’t realise that if you keep at it you can do crazy things. It’s a show-off sport but even if you are not into it for that, it’s an amazing buzz.”

Make a how-to video, win  tickets to the Electric Picnic

Could you make a video teaching Irish Timesreaders a new skill? It can be anything: making a soufflé, playing the theremin, pulling a pint of stout.

Record a video tutorial of not more than two minutes, upload it to YouTube, and send the URL link – along with your name, address and phone number – to Closing date: Midday on Friday 22nd.

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