Where are all the YouTube educators?

In my experience, what’s cool is one step ahead of what’s useful, and since learning technologists like to inhabit the “what’s cool” field, they are two steps ahead of the academics they support, rather than one step ahead. Naturally that’s a coarse generalisation. There has to be a little “leading edge” research, but it seems to attract more funding and effort than is useful for front-line academics, hence this deliberately provocative post.

Go back to the start of the decade, and wireless learning and palmtop computers were cool, and it seems a lot of learning technology projects researched that area. Only now are we getting to the stage where every student has a mobile device, and they are as different from the original palmtops as modern cars are from the Ford Model T. IMHO, the more revolutionary thing happening at that time was the increasing interactivity of web sites, including the increasing power and standardisation of JavaScript in browsers, so that, for example, web pages could become active mathematical models. Academics could have done with more help (yes, including from me) to get the educational value out of those services.

Why am I whining about this now? Well, what’s cool right now is Second Life. I keep hearing of events and Facebook groups for “Second Life educators”, and I’ve been to two presentations recently that helpfully demystified SL. I expect that some sort of virtual world will be seriously mainstream in the future, maybe even a killer app for education, but I’m sure that it will be very different from SL, which we’ll remember the way we now look back at crushed velvet curtains and lava lamps.

As technologists charge towards the leading edge, might they again be missing out on the real revolution; less sexy, but a more historic sea-change in how students learn. Clue: look at what students are actually using the Internet for. I’m talking about video sharing and, particularly at this point in time, YouTube.

“Yeuch” (and/or “Yawn”), you’ll hear, “YouTube isn’t for intellectuals“, which is as mad as saying that books aren’t for intellectuals. Seek brainy content and you shall find. Right now there are the TED talks – some of the most inspiring and engaging intellectual content on the web. NobelPrize.org is uploading its prize winner lectures. Richard Wiseman is using magic to get people excited about perceptual psychology. Video can be very low-tech but have meaty intellectual content: Greg Craven is a teacher creating dozens of short videos in an ongoing debate with his viewers about the science of climate change, with massive success in terms of views and coverage. It’s low-cost, non-leading edge technology that enables this to happen.

When we at the Economics Network had author Tim Harford as a conference keynote, we put video segments of his talk in YT. Harford linked the videos from his blog, and within days we had thousands of hits, in addition to the thousands of direct downloads from the site. The people who follow Harford’s blog are likely to be very close to our target audience. By contrast, getting a couple of hundred hits a month for a textual case study would be good by our standards.

Right now, there are videos on YT with millions of hits that consist only of a textual essay read out by a computer voice. How many hits would there be on the same essay posted as plain text? What’s more, viewers seem to engage with, and have attitudes changed by, the arguments in that text.

So there’s something specially accessible about YT vids (and will be for DailyMotion and Vimeo vids, or whatever the next cool site is). Not only can you watch them in most web browsers, you can find and view them on the iPhone or iPod Touch, on some digital TV services. You can embed them in your own blog. People are even sharing audio files by combining them with a still image and uploading the result as a video, since that seems to more convenient for users than just posting the MP3.

Are academics being helped by learning technologists into this online video age, or are the resources being put into virtual-world research which before long will seem very quaint? I’ve no systematic evidence, but the excitement about SL seems disproportionate to its actual usefulness for universities.


11 Responses to “Where are all the YouTube educators?”

  1. andypowe11 Says:

    I don’t disagree with the general thrust of this. My only comment would be that the level of noise around SL (and other virtual worlds) probably outweighs the amount of funding that is being put into the area.

    At ALT-C last year, for example, there were very few SL-related papers – possibly none?? On the other hand, there were quite a number of papers about podcasting (of both the video and audio varieties).

    Oddly, as far as I recall, none touched on the use of YouTube. So on that count in particular, I definitely concur with what you say above.

  2. Martin Poulter Says:

    Fair point Andy, and you’ve managed to find a way to measure level of interest in the respective technologies – wish I’d thought of that rather than going on a vague subjective feeling. The interest in educational vodcasting does blunt my point a bit, but since my point was negative I find that reassuring.

  3. silversprite Says:

    > I expect that some sort of virtual world will be seriously
    > mainstream in the future, maybe even a killer app for
    > education, but I’m sure that it will be very different from
    > SL, which we’ll remember the way we now look back at
    > crushed velvet curtains and lava lamps.

    Hmmm, sort of. Though it’s not perhaps a binary case of “no killer app” or “killer app”. More of different online game-oriented environments being each useful and usable to education in some ways, but not in others. Not sure I believe in the concept of the “killer app” anyway. Radio was a killer app, itself largely (but not wholly) killed by “killer app” TV, itself killed by DVD, itself being gradually killed by net downloads.

    The **general direction** of SL and similar things tends towards an increasing number of uses in education. In 100 words:

    Virtual environments aren’t going to go away. They’re going to keep getting “better”: look better, be more adaptable, be easier to use. This progress is enabled by the ongoing take-up of broadband, and continuous increases in broadband speed and hardware capabilities. At the same time, teachers comfortable with digital technologies are constantly entering the education sector, replacing the “fossil generation” of teachers who don’t use, or want to use, such technologies. Some of these newer teachers, usually through their own initiative, are finding more ways of delivering teaching and learning through virtual environments. Therefore, we’re in for the long haul.

  4. silversprite Says:

    Damn; forgot to point to an entry on my blog:


    …where have wittered on about, sort-of, the SL part of Martin’s comments.

  5. Paul Ayres Says:

    Interesting that a post about YouTube generates more comments from mentioning Second Life in passing, than its original subject – perhaps this reaffirms your original point about hype versus reality re: Second Life.

    As for YouTube, well why not have a go yourself Martin? While you may not be a practicing academic, you know more about philosophy, psychology and economics than most of us and we all know you can make an interesting video 😉

    It would be interesting to know about your experiences after you had “had a go” yourself and perhaps you’ll be able to answer the interesting issues you raise above.

    You are right that there is plenty of brainy content on YouTube, but it could be easier to find. The Education category is not very educational and I tend to rely on third parties to point to good stuff that’s on there.

    I used to subscribe to the Economics tag for new videos but the signal to noise ratio got ridiculous. We have tried to add some of the more educational channels to Intute.

  6. Martin Poulter Says:

    Thanks for the comments, John/Silversprite. I trust you and Andy at least to research SL and write about it thoughtfully.

  7. Paul Ayres Says:

    And if you are interested in the attitudes of those who may be coming out way in five years time, I recently went to a seminar on Web 2.0 practice in schools, which I have written up on the Intute: Social Sciences blog


    … perhaps a reality check for us all

  8. Using embeddable video services « The Ancient Geeks Says:

    […] Where are all the YouTube educators? […]

  9. MP:me Says:

    I actually taught a course about and ON YouTube last Fall, hoping that by using the site to actually do the academic work of teaching, researching and learning my students would see how the architecture of the site facilitates practices, forms, and experiences goo at some things (entertainment, wasting time) but not at others we might demand of the world’s largest archive of moving images. Debates about entertainment (what they think they want all the time) and education were fascinating, as was their need for discipline. You can see the work they did (all assignments had to be videos or comments on the site) at:

    and I’ve been blogging about it this spring, trying to make better sense of the experiment. I’d love feedback. It’s a work in progress (teaching the course again this fall, but this time, using BOOKS and LIBRARY).

  10. Eduserv Symposium 2008 « The Ancient Geeks Says:

    […] Where are all the YouTube educators? […]

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