Although sometimes it may seem like it, YouTube is not just for cute cats and music videos. Users are harnessing the video-sharing platform for a different kind of entertainment—an educational kind. Remember when Mentos symphony videos were the pinnacle of awesome and we all found out what happens when Mentos and Diet Coke are mixed? YouTube education has broadened since then; thanks to many innovative, independent content creators, it has also gotten a lot slicker. It’s a no-brainer that plenty of Internet junkies like educational content when it’s presented in an interesting fashion by experts who are comfortable in front of a camera—the enormous popularity of TED talks videos is ample evidence of that. YouTube even has a page called YouTube EDU that features various educational videos broken down into Primary and Secondary, University, and Lifelong Learning categories. There are many YouTube educators out there, and here are a few of the best to get started:
CGP Grey is both a classroom teacher and a YouTube educator. Rather than appearing in front of the camera, Grey uses quick transitions of still images combined with voiceover to explain concepts to viewers. Grey doesn’t limit himself to any specific subject area; he educates on topics of politics, science, arts, geography, and debunks misconceptions. Some of his most popular videos include “Death to Pennies,” “Coffee: The Greatest Addiction Ever,” and “The Difference Between Holland and the Netherlands,” as well as his “Politics in the Animal Kingdom” series of lessons which explain how the American electoral system works.
Vlogbrothers John and Hank Green have already been wildly successful with their video channel that debuted back at the beginning of 2007; in 2012 they harnessed their popularity to bring a slick new educational channel to YouTube, on which each teaches an area of speciality. John started with a 42 week course on World History, and Hank started with Biology. They’ve since moved on to mini courses in English Literature and Ecology. The shows are filmed in detailed sets and partner with web graphics team Thought Bubble, making for a viewing experience that feels like it should be on television. Facts and ideas are presented at a quick pace that may sometimes require a second viewing, but the production values and details in the graphics, sets, and scripts keep repeat viewings engaging—interspersed anachronisms in the World History graphics are especially fun to watch for. The brothers integrate their humour into the content and their years of practice vlogging makes them natural teachers on camera.
Hank Green has a second educational channel in which he explains scientific ideas, current news, and brief biographies of great scientific minds. He even conducts a few experiments of his own. Like Crash Course, SciShow boasts high production values and vibrantly coloured sets. Recent topics have included what gross things you should and should not worry about (Preview: your toilet seat is not one of the things to worry about.), dark matter, Henrietta Levitt, and extreme climate fixes.
Embracing a low-tech, high-engagement approach, MinutePhysics primarily consists of creator Henry Reich time-lapse drawing with black marker on white paper illustrating voiced-over physics concepts. The simplicity makes the ideas imparted all the clearer, and while Reich does not strictly adhere to one minute, the videos are kept brief and to the point explaining just one main idea. MinutePhysics has featured such voiceover guests as Neil De Grasse Tyson and Neil Turok, and is supported by the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.
Big Think might best be known as the channel that hosted Bill Nye’s “Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children” video, but it does feature many more fascinating minds who, in short videos, pose questions for viewers to think about—usually relating to pressing concerns of science in the 21st century, and problems that humanity will have to overcome. In addition to Nye, the channel has featured Neil De Grasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, Ray Kurzweil, Henry Rollins, Steven Pinker, Stephen Greenblat, and Margaret Cho among others.
The future of education?
In the video “Digital Aristotle: Thoughts on the Future of Education,” CGP Grey discusses why the Internet as an educational tool can help solve a lot of the problems that students struggle with in the classroom. The Internet is a cost-effective private tutor. You learn at your own rate, and get to pick what you learn. The cost of producing educational shows for YouTube is a fraction of what it costs to make educational shows for television—which he notes are ultimately pushed aside for unintelligent material that attracts more viewers. Grey envisions a future with what he calls “Digital Aristotle”—a program that teaches a student what they need to learn at a rate that is suited to them. Programmers are currently working on teaching tools that would feed students videos and other online material, test their knowledge and adapt to their needs. Essentially, each student would have a private tutor in their mobile device that adapts to their learning style. We’re not there yet—the Internet’s power as an educational tool has far from reached its potential, but in the meantime get on YouTube and learn—and the next time someone asks what you’re wasting your time on, dazzle them with your newfound knowledge.