In Defence of Educational YouTube Videos

A response to Alex Daniel’s blog post video The Problem With YouTube Videos

Luke Maw

A Brief History of YouTube

Back in 2006, when I was 13, I remember my father telling me about a new website that he had heard about which allowed users to upload videos that could be viewed by anyone on the internet. This site was YouTube, and it could be argued that it was one of the biggest factors in shaping how we see and use the Internet today. In its early years, YouTube was filled almost entirely with poorly made home videos. It was not until YouTube was bought by Google in late 2006 that it started to become the corporate, money making, social media giant that it is today.

During high school, I remember hearing rumours that ‘if your video on YouTube got over a million views, they gave you £50’. This was a distorted, school-boy interpretation of Google’s AdSense. This initiative, new to YouTube, meant that Google would share a portion of its ad revenue with video creators if they allowed advertisements to be displayed on their videos. By 2010, when YouTube had become a household name in the world of social media and popular ‘channels’ were beginning to exceed 1 million subscribers, YouTube started to become a viable profession for dedicated users.

‘Professional YouTubers’, who made a living from uploading videos, began to become more commonplace. Naturally, the genres of these videos varied hugely, but the majority of these up and coming YouTubers chose to produce comedy videos, much to their financial success, with some allegedly making thousands of dollars a month. There was, however, a number of emerging YouTubers who elected to produce educational videos. This was an immediately more difficult task than producing comedy – up until mid-2010, the maximum length of a YouTube video was 10 minutes, and it was only in 2011 that YouTube finally made it possible to upload videos of unlimited length. This meant that for a long time, educational videos on YouTube had to be either incredibly concise, cover a very narrow topic, or be split into a series of videos that would likely reduce user interest. However, even after video duration caps were lifted, video producers still had their viewers’ attention span to contend with, as will be discussed later. This all combined to suggest that educational videos on YouTube were perhaps destined for failure.

Enter Edutainment

In 2011, successful educational YouTube channels began to emerge and, with seemingly everything against them, their successes were arguably doubly impressive. During his video, Alex takes educational YouTube videos purely on face value; however, I feel the circumstances behind them play a bigger part in their success than hesuggests. Educational entertainment, or edutainment, has evolved rapidly over the past few decades. In the 1980s and 90s, children’s television programmes, such as the hugely successful Sesame Street, dominated the edutainment skyline. However, for the large part, educational entertainment was reserved for the particularly young. For teenagers and adults, most education is done within schools and further education establishments, where league tables and government pressure leave little time or resources for entertainment. Nevertheless, educational YouTube videos were becoming increasingly capable of bridging the gap between education in school and the dry, often heavy, conventional television programmes such as Panorama or The Sky at Night. The closest television ever got to easily accessible educational content was, perhaps, The Discovery Channel. This provided always-running material that could be picked at by adults and children alike, but ultimately lacked variety and the ability to choose topics on demand. The short-form, teenage friendly YouTube ‘channels’, such as Vsauce, Veritasium and MinutePhysics, adopted an alternative method of delivery by providing brief, yet thought provoking educational videos. Furthermore, in recent years, some of these YouTube channels have begun to break into the classroom, with several YouTubers often sharing examples of their videos being shown in schools. As Alex stated in his video, educational YouTube videos sometimes lack verifiable sources, or even conclusive evidence. It’s important to remember that they are not designed to be transcribed into a scientific journal, in the same way that we do not expect to see a references page at the end of Wonders of the Universe. In many cases, the quality of the material produced by educational YouTubers equals that of commercial television, with one-man teams such as CGPGrey devoting hundreds of hours to ensure their videos are as well made as possible.

Bridging the Gap

YouTube’s sheer size and immense popularity[1] means that there is a corresponding wealth of material to suit all kinds of interests. As Alex elegantly demonstrates in his video, this leads to an entire spectrum of educational YouTube videos, differing in style, delivery, brevity, and level of detail. However, I do not see this as a problem like Alex does. I feel that this is what makes YouTube such a powerful platform: those who desire to watch something entertaining, but want something more fulfilling than comedy[2] , may still gain something from the thought-provoking, pub-chat inducing videos from the likes of Vsauce and Numberphile. In turn, these sorts of videos may provoke further interest and research that, contrary to Alex’s belief, are more often than not provided with additional URLs in the video’s description[3]. Additionally, what is wrong with having educational videos ‘ripped’ off VHS on YouTube? For the most part I see no issue with old educational videos taking place alongside contemporary material, as the age of the video does not necessarily bear resemblance to the validity of its content, except perhaps in the case of some advanced Physics. I for one remember being shown videos from the ‘80s and ‘90s throughout my school career, even at A-level and undergraduate degree level. Equally, YouTube’s ‘related videos’ algorithm is incredibly complex and is certainly not just based on video views as Alex suggests.

I believe that popular science YouTube videos serve as a tonic to the dry and esoteric world of scientific papers and stuffy journals such as Nature and Science that, to the majority of the population, are obstructed by a paywall. Equally, they offer a more bite size and accessible experience than conventional television programmes such as Panorama and Wonders of the Universe, which require a greater investment of time and concentration. They also cater for the hugely expanding demographic of Internet-immersed 15-25 year olds, who are seemingly becoming increasingly intolerant to the attitude of sitting down and waiting for a TV programme to come on. At risk of sounding old before my time, it seems it is not the YouTube producers that we should be blaming, but the changing demands of the youth.

Taking it too far?

Recently, it seems that some YouTubers have started to see the limitations of producing short-form, whistle-stop tours of popular science, with producers such as Sixty Symbols and SciShow breaking the 20 and 30-minute barrier. Equally, some YouTubers host an additional channel where they provide addenda and extra content that they link to at the end of the main video. However, Henry Reich of the YouTube channel MinutePhysics strongly believes in brief, succinct videos that explain scientific topics at an alarming, often noticeably rushed, pace. His videos are rarely longer than 3 minutes and, in the case of a few videos, he even attempted to cover topics such as Radar, Microwaves and one-way mirrors in fewer than ten seconds. This is an extreme example, but leads onto the albeit cynical question that perhaps some YouTubers choose to produce frequent, short videos to maximise the number of views they receive, and hence, the money they earn from YouTube. This is a relatively new problem, as conventional media such as books and television largely do not suffer from this, and in some cases could begin to discredit the work of a particular YouTube producer.

This leads onto the complicated and incredibly new world of subscription-based YouTube videos. Coincidentally, CGPGrey of YouTube fame does an excellent job of explaining the concept here. Subscription sites such as Patreon and Subbable allow YouTubers to circumvent the oft-unreliable source of income from AdSense revenue and appeal directly for donations and paid subscriptions from users. This allows more freedom for the YouTuber to create material that may not necessarily rack up as many views as other content, but allows them to create material that is not constrained by revenue goals. In other words, the shortcomings that Alex alludes to in his video are now being mitigated, leading to an even better platform for educational videos.

What I hope this shows is that, unlike the somewhat stagnant state of educational television, the world of YouTube edutainment is not only growing rapidly, but is also hugely dynamic and increasingly has the potential to shape the education of the future.

[1] Around a billion people visit YouTube every month and over 130,000 hours of content is watched every minute

[3]  To name but a few; Vsauce, CGPGrey, Sixty Symbols, Numberphile and ASAPScience always post further reading, references and additional video links in the description of their videos.

In Defence of Educational YouTube Videos

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