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Four Questions to Ask When Using YouTube in the Classroom

By Christopher Drew / February 2018

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Educational YouTube brands such as Khan Academy, Crash Course, and School of Life provide videos that aim to deliver transformational results for education. They are often hailed for their value for allowing "anytime, anywhere" learning, and their capacity to engage learners through a visceral medium with which they may be familiar [1]. Their use is widely accepted for enabling flipped learning, whereby teachers have students watch videos that introduce topics so students can spend class or online forum time doing constructive work under the guidance of a teacher [2].

Online educational videos are not simply news snippets or film scenes used as teaching prompts to promote discussion and critique. They are designed and used explicitly as learning tools. Deliberate teaching happens within the videos themselves. Because of this, teachers need to think about whether the teaching strategies employed within the videos are pedagogically sound. In my research into YouTube videos for learning, I have experienced concern that many such educational YouTube videos are designed with very basic underpinning pedagogical practices.

Khan Academy videos, for example, tend to involve a simple screencast, which talk students through procedures of completing mathematical problems. One of the most-viewed Khan Academy screencast of all time, "Balancing Chemical Equations," provides an example of the potential flaws of the Khan video screencast format. The video begins with an image of a chemical equation that needs to be balanced. The video involves a presenter explaining the steps to solving the equation. In this video, there is minimal contextualization of the content or explanation of its value in real life. It is, for all intents and purposes, a transmission style, chalk-and-talk pinned up on YouTube [3, 4].

Sure, many tens of thousands of learners around the world may find value in the videos. Indeed, several Khan videos have been directly designed to help students pass standardized tests, which are similarly criticized for being decontextualized [5]. For these purposes, Khan videos do have some pedagogical value. They enable students to pause, rewind, and replay the content until they finally understand the set procedure for completing a task. However, no matter how many times students view Khan-style procedural videos, the students will gain no deeper contextual or real-life knowledge about the problems they are completing. This leads to shallow learning that will likely mean students will have difficulty applying the knowledge to new contexts [[4].

Nevertheless, Khan Academy has enjoyed the hype and excitement of big names like Google and Bill Gates, who have funneled money into videos that tend to employ very basic pedagogical practice [6]. Similarly, YouTube channels like Crash Course and School of Life involve bells and whistles in the form of fast-moving cartoon graphics and charismatic presenters telling students about world history, philosophy, or a similar topic. However, there tends to be very little in such videos in the way of asking students to apply, critique, or theorize about ideas. My concern, therefore, is as Ani astutely puts it, "when bad teaching happens in the classroom, it's a crisis; but when it happens on YouTube, it's a revolution" [3].

A way forward in thinking about selecting videos that explicitly enact pedagogical work is not only to consider whether videos have engaging graphics or upbeat presenters, but also to focus on the pedagogical value and the level of engagement or rigor videos create for student learning. Jonassen introduces the useful concept of "cognitive tool" that I believe is invaluable when deciding whether to use an online video as a pedagogue [7, 8]. Educational YouTube videos can either be valuable cognitive tools for assisting students in engaging in cognition and higher-order thinking, or can simply act as didactic teachers dictating information to students in inauthentic ways.

Anyone considering using YouTube videos as cognitive tools for learning should therefore judge the quality of videos the same way they would judge real-life teachers. Considerations should include whether the video is treating students like sponges by feeding them information they should passively absorb, or treating them like active, critically thinking knowledge constructors. To follow the likes of Bloom [9] and Biggs [10], lower-order thinking tends to emphasize memorization, which leads to the lower-order skills of fact recall and repetition. By contrast, higher-order thinking tends to engage in analysis and synthesis in order that students generate new knowledge. To assess the pedagogical quality of educational videos, four key questions to ask of any online educational video are:

  1. Does this video ask open-ended questions or simply narrate facts to students?
  2. Does this video ask students to apply and critique knowledge or simply remember and understand?
  3. Are there opportunities for students to compare and contrast ideas presented?
  4. Are examples provided that enable students to apply the knowledge presented to their own real-life contexts?

An example of an educational YouTube video type that effectively addresses these four points is "When to Use Pretérito or Imperfecto in Spanish?" by Why Not Spanish. In this video, the presenter models the use of preterite and imperfect tenses. It then posts open-ended questions on the screen, and leaves a pause to allow viewers to actively construct answers to the questions. Here, the presenter moves from narrating facts to asking students to apply knowledge in order to prove their understanding. In this process, students need to compare preterit and imperfect tenses and make decisions based on their new knowledge. In other videos from this series, the presenter goes shopping and to the bus stop to apply language ideas to real life-contexts.

At the end of the day, videos should be presented to students as one part of a wider lesson in which teachers asks students to reflect on the videos and the ideas they present [8]. However, when teachers are considering educational YouTube videos that are designed explicitly to teach, they should approach the videos knowing not all educational videos are equal. Videos have the capacity to situate a student as a passive viewer or active user. Some videos, like the Khan example here, present information in ways that are decontextualized and uncritical, much in the way teachers once narrated information with a chalkboard in a classroom. On the other hand, educational videos that treat students as knowledge constructors will help them practice their higher-order thinking skills. Even in flipped learning when teachers give students educational videos to watch in their own time as an introduction to a topic, students should always be coming back into the classroom or web forum with questions, comments, and ideas that the educational videos have actively worked to encourage through sound pedagogical practices.


[1] Berk, R. A. Multimedia teaching with video clips: TV, movies, YouTube, and MTVs in the college classroom. International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning 5, 1 (2009), 1-21.

[2] Ash, K. Educators evaluate flipped classrooms. Education Week 32, 2 (2012), 6-8.

[3] Ani, K. K.Khan Academy: The hype and the reality. The Education Digest 78, 6 (2013), 23-25.

[4] Schwartz, M. Khan academy: The illusion of understanding. Online Learning 17, 4 (2013), 1-14.

[5] Kelleghan, T., Madaus, G. F., and Airasian, P. W. The Effects of Standardized Testing. Kluwer Nijhoff, Boston, 2012.

[6] Thompson, C. How Khan Academy is changing the rules of education. Wired Magazine 126 (2011), 1-5.

[7] Jonassen, D.H. Modeling with technology: Mindtools for conceptual change. Merill/Prentice Hall, Columbus, OH, 2006.

[8] Kim, B., and Reeves, T. C. Reframing research on learning with technology: In search of the meaning of cognitive tools. Instructional Science 35, 3 (2007), 207-256.

[9] Bloom, B S. and Krathwohl, D. R. Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals, by a committee of college and university examiners. Longmans, New York, 1956.

[10] Biggs, J. Teaching for Quality Learning at University. (2nd Edn.) McGraw Hill, Maidenhead, 2003.

About the Author

Dr. Christopher Drew is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Teesside University in Northern England. His research explores how cognitive tools can be used in classrooms to assist deep learning. He is currently concerned with the ways online videos and podcasts are used by teachers as standalone teaching materials.

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