Grainne Hallahan

EduTubers and blended learning: the future for schools?

Google’s video-streaming platform is coming for the education sector but, as Grainne Hallahan finds, a glut of free-to-view lessons could create as many problems as they solve. Will teachers have a role to play in separating the good vlogs from the bad?

The rise of the EduTuber

If you wade past the cat videos, elbow your way through the clips of people doing stupid things and take a bypass around the billion-view music promos, you will find a part of YouTube where people teach you stuff: how to knit a scarf, how to skateboard, how to build model replicas of world monuments – even how to be a better person.

People don’t go to that bit of YouTube much, compared with the rest of it, and no one really talks about it, either. By the time you have watched a cat looking surprised, beheld a man falling off the roof of a house and checked out the new Taylor Swift video, there’s little time or inclination left to view anything else.

Which is why YouTube needs you. It wants to change how people see the video platform (and, perhaps, how advertisers see it – but let’s not be cynical just yet). It wants to change which videos you watch and why. And it wants to make that change using you – the teacher – and your students.

That’s right: YouTube is coming for education. It claims it will make life better for students and teachers alike. And unlike many other edtech ventures, it has the potential to (perhaps accidentally) succeed.

You’re already suspicious – and with good reason. Despite pockets of excellent practice, edtech has seldom lived up to the hype. Not every child has an iPad (or wants one); our classrooms are not lit with the blue light of technological wonder; and, as far as we can tell, teachers have yet to be replaced by a flatscreen and a motherboard.

Sure, your average teacher plans on a laptop, produces PowerPoint presentations, occasionally uses an interactive whiteboard (with visualiser) and might have a few tablet computers knocking around, but they are predominantly doing the job as they always did: talking, setting tasks and providing feedback, all without the use of a microchip.

Admittedly, the technology itself is not always at fault: the Education Endowment Foundation has cited a lack of teacher CPD as one of the main barriers to edtech’s success. School staff have had shiny new toys, but no one has shown them how to use them.

However, in its Using digital technology to improve learning report, the EEF does – politely – suggest that the tech has not been up to much either: “It can become a solution in search of a problem unless it is introduced in response to an identified need,” it diplomatically states.

Into this citadel of disappointment now rides YouTube. Many teachers have used an occasional YouTube video to teach, but what the company has planned is much bigger.

Same game, different name

It got started on this mission in late 2018. YouTube’s global head of learning, Malik Ducard, explained in an October 2018 blog post that “anyone who wants to learn and teach will have ever greater opportunities to do so on YouTube”.

He revealed that the company was going to provide $20 million (£15.3 million) of funding “to support creators who make some of the best learning content on YouTube”. He added that “EduTubers” (for that, apparently, is now what educational vloggers are called) would have better resources and networks with which to create content. And he said that the platform would also partner with leading online course makers to expand educational content (see bit.ly/EduTubers).

That at least part of this content would cater for YouTube’s vast teen audience was made clear by Ducard name-checking two channels that cross over into the school space: Socratica, which runs maths and science videos (see bit.ly/Socratica) and PhysicsGirl, which covers the physical sciences (see bit.ly/PhysicsGirl). It’s also come to light that teacher-turned-EduTuber AsapScience is involved in the project.

What exactly was the aim of all this content? How would channels be chosen? What would the cash be for? It all went a bit quiet after Ducard’s post, but the expansion of the project to other regions has shed new light on the company’s aims – and particularly revealing have been its recent activities in the UK.

In late 2019, YouTube began inviting prominent UK-based EduTubers to its London offices for brainstorming sessions and workshops. It was made clear that there would be no direct funding as such for the UK channels, but a lot of “assistance” would be provided, according to those involved.

Quite what that assistance involves remains vague, but Ben McOwen Wilson, YouTube’s managing director for the UK, is happy to be more forthcoming on the overall mission.

“Our goal is to build a destination on YouTube to help learners access some of the most amazing education content possible,” he says.

Part of the plan is technical, McOwen Wilson explains: the site is tweaking how video recommendations are offered to users so that more high-quality educational content surfaces. In addition, he says the company will be working with EduTubers to ensure that users get the content they are looking for.

Who does YouTube foresee those users being? “It’s not for us to set the rules for who the audience will be,” says McOwen Wilson. “It will vary across different contents, creators, and age groups.”

But he clearly expects students and teachers to be a chunk of that audience.

“I would love for teachers to feel that, whatever topic they’re trying to bring to life for pupils, there is a channel or there are videos on YouTube to help them to deliver their subject [for] the breadth of talent and learning abilities in their classroom,” he says.

And he adds: “The reality is [that] young people are spending a huge amount of time online …We [often] ask, “What on earth are they all searching for?” Well, they’re searching for help with their homework.”

It’s at this point you are probably getting nervous. Pupils trawling YouTube for help with their homework usually means the next lesson is spent dealing with all the misconceptions, off-topic knowledge and plain-wrong information they have picked up. Meanwhile, teacher-directed video watching – mostly in the form of flipped learning – is greeted with scepticism in many staffrooms.

But McOwen Wilson is insistent that we need not worry: “[When] we look at where YouTube is used alongside and as part of the education system, what we’ve heard from creators and through the comments is that … teachers [say] how helpful these videos have been. We see these YouTube videos as being able to improve and enhance what they’re already doing, rather than invest their time in something that someone else has already been able to create.”

Of course, he would say that. But are YouTube’s plans really something teachers should be getting excited about?

In lieu of YouTube’s plan for how the content will be used, we can assume that the two main ways in which students will consume content are by looking for it themselves and being directed to it by a teacher.

Let’s take the first method. McOwen Wilson sees finding videos themselves as a positive behaviour for students to adopt.

“We’re not deliberately setting out to be disruptive,” he says. “But I think when you have a platform that can connect the most powerful maths teacher with a pupil looking to learn maths, anywhere around the world, then one of the upsides is that people are then not limited to the fact of whether they’ve got a good teacher or not, or whether they can go to school or not. That is a huge equaliser.”

There are a few issues with this. First, it relies on a student having internet access at home. Even in an advanced economy such as the UK’s, that is not a given.

Even if every student did have access at home, you would still hit a second issue: they would need to correctly recognise the information they needed to seek out, and whether the material they found fitted with the course content they were studying. If different methodologies or content were being featured, that could (with a heavy emphasis on “could” here) be beneficial to the student’s general understanding, but would likely hamper their learning in class. That’s regardless of how good the teacher-EduTuber or content may be.

How good are students at spotting relevant content? To self-analyse in this way – to be able to spot their own gaps in knowledge and to critically appraise content they discover – requires refined metacognitive skills. Unfortunately, a recent EEF report found that these skills can be “complex and subtle” and that teachers need to explicitly teach them. That’s arguably not happening enough in most schools and YouTube videos are already becoming problematic for teachers.

“It is so frustrating to have to reteach content I haven’t even taught myself,” says a London Year 6 teacher. “Just because a student watched a video on how to multiply double figures using a bizarre and supposedly ‘ancient Chinese’ method, and now can’t do it.”

“I have had pupils tell me a method I am teaching them is wrong, based only on a video they watched,” adds a secondary maths teacher. “It takes a lot of work to get them back on track.”

Overstepping the mock

It’s not just “wrong” content causing issues, though: there have also been problems with EduTubers using past GCSE papers in their videos, ruining any chance of those papers being used in mock exams. Jude Hunton, deputy head at Nicholas Chamberlaine School, says that “the YouTuber is working against schools here. Using papers that should be reserved for mocks is more about self-marketing than working with schools, students and teachers.”

The AQA exam board confirms that it has received complaints about this happening and has had to step in.

A YouTube spokesperson says the company will take “action on any videos that violate our policies (such as sharing copyrighted material) and would, of course, be something we would consider in our work with EduTubers” – but if the action is reactive, not proactive, the damage may be done before anyone can intervene.

And on the videos being confusing for children, or inaccurate? YouTube says it wants to surface high-quality education content so that the above issues do not arise – but how do you police that, and then indicate to the user what is good or relevant? The plan is to largely leave that to the market to decide.

“Inaccurate information will be downgraded [on YouTube] – things like Holocaust denial or flat-earth [conspiracy theories],” says McOwen Wilson. “Within learning content, we are more focused on how the algorithm will recognise quality – so, how people respond, view, onward-share this kind of material. Good content does rise to the top.”

If the pre-general election fake-news explosion at the tail end of 2019 taught us anything, though, it is that the most dubious material can be shared and commented on thousands of times before anyone notices there is an issue. And, as explained above, users may not actually know what was “quality”.

Would it not be better to work with approved teacher-moderators to badge the best and most relevant videos as YouTube-endorsed?

“We’re not ruling in or out the idea of an approval or signifier for content,” replies McOwen Wilson. “But you wouldn’t find YouTube being the arbiter of that. We would work with others in the sector to decide who would qualify. What content is ‘good content’ is driven by the way students and other teachers view, comment and like. If there was any formal recognition, we would look to others to bring it to the platform.”

By “others”, you would hope he means “teachers”. Without that sort of moderation, it’s hard to see how flooding YouTube with education videos is going to be that helpful for teachers – in fact, it would probably make things worse for both them and their students.

But don’t write YouTube off just yet, because there is another way all this free content may be used in schools: teachers using the videos themselves.

What we are talking about here is a flipped learning model: students listening to the lecture part of the lesson at home, pre-lesson, and then during the lesson they review, apply, practise and analyse that content. Certainly, the way McOwen Wilson describes one potential use of the videos would fit that model.

“It’s really hard for the teacher as just one person, in ‘real time’, with a class of 30 kids, when the children can’t pause, rewind, check with another source,” he says. “Even for the most brilliant teacher in the world, it would be really hard to get all of those kids moving through the content at a similar pace.”

Whether flipped learning is how YouTube wants the videos to be used, it won’t say, but it’s certainly an intriguing proposition.

Despite some negativity among teachers, there is a pretty positive message coming out of the research into flipped learning: students are often more engaged with the material in class because they’ve already grasped the basics, and the teacher’s time can be focused on more complex ideas because the students already have a good grounding in the topic.

The EEF has completed research into flipped learning, including a randomised controlled trial. Robbie Coleman, head of policy at EEF, believes that there is good evidence that flipped learning is a strategy worthy of schools’ consideration.

“The trial used a programme called Maths Flip, and it was for primary school students in Year 6,” Coleman explains. “Students had access to video resources that covered the content of the lesson that the teacher had planned.”

These students made one month more progress in comparison with the students who didn’t use the flipped-learning model, and students who were entitled to free school meals made double that progress. Interestingly, students also made three months’ worth of progress in reading and writing, even though these weren’t foci of the task.

The research is consistent with other findings. For example, a recent meta-analysis concluded that “a flipping-the-classroom approach is a promising pedagogical approach when appropriately designed” (see bit.ly/FlippingClassroom).

If YouTube was to focus its efforts here, then there is a lot of promise.

However, Coleman warns that more research is needed, as “very few high- quality studies have been done”. He adds that technology is often a barrier, as is teacher CPD.

Arguably, though, the latter two issues are not really YouTube’s concern. And they would in fact be tackling one of the biggest barriers to the flipped-learning model: a supply of free, high-quality videos to facilitate the method working.

Except we’re back to that quality issue again: without teachers involved in the creation moderation, as well as being the end user, could they really trust the videos or have enough time to trawl for the ones that are good enough?

Does McOwen Wilson recognise the potential, and perhaps the missed potential, here? He says YouTube is recommending research on video learning to the EduTuber creators that they are in contact with. But that – again – does not really answer the question over quality control.

Will video kill the classroom star?

Of course, there is no guarantee that if YouTube asked, teachers would respond kindly to a request to hone the content. That’s because there’s a possibility that, certainly inadvertently, YouTube could start taking teacher’s jobs.

The company says that it isn’t setting out to replace teachers with playlists of videos. McOwen Wilson is explicit that all classrooms need actual teachers in them.

“There are some things that can’t be replicated in the classroom,” he says. “Students need to validate what they’ve learned; they need to be tested accurately and appropriately. For formal learning and for GCSE-learning students, videos alone aren’t going to solve this.”

Andrew Bruff, an English teacher turned EduTuber, agrees. His channel (bit.ly/MrBruff) has 236,000 subscribers, and his GCSE and A-level videos have had more than 40 million views – but he doesn’t see his resources as any kind of replacement for a real teacher.

“The school and the teachers are essential and critical,” Bruff says. “What we don’t offer in our videos is feedback, is marking, is assessment. You need a teacher to read your work and give you feedback, because one thing we all do is think we’ve learned something, and then later found out we haven’t. Unless there is someone there to tell us ‘no, you’ve misunderstood that’, the whole thing falls apart.”

And yet, not all YouTubers feel the same. Shaun Donnelly – the brains behind channel Free Science Lessons (bit.ly/SDonnelly), which has 337,000 subscribers – believes that, in fact, watching videos is enough.

“A student could watch my videos and just my videos, and not attend lessons, and they wouldn’t just pass, but they would get a good grade,” he claims. “Just by watching my videos.”

It appears some may have taken him at his word. Speaking to Tes anonymously, one head of science explains how using YouTube videos came to the rescue at a time when putting a qualified science teacher in the classroom just wasn’t an option because of recruitment issues.

If the content does get better – if YouTube sorts the quality control out – it’s not inconceivable that such attitudes would spread further. Why, then, would teachers buy into the whole enterprise?

Well, if YouTube gets the quality right, if the teacher involvement at both the supply and demand ends is there, if school leaders are sensible and don’t see opportunities where there should be none around recruitment, if students are sensible enough to go only to approved places for information, if teachers use the research around metacognition and flipped learning sensibly, and if we properly fund further research to check again and again that the benefits are really there – then it may be a risk worth taking.

But that’s a lot of ifs. And thus far, YouTube has not provided much certainty to counter them. Without that, it’s hard to see the platform achieving the impact it craves. EduTubers may well get more coverage, but the view counters of the next Charlie Bit My Finger or the latest music video from Taylor Swift are likely to remain elusive to them – at least for the time being.

Grainne Hallahan is senior content writer at Tes. She tweets @heymrshallahan

This article originally appeared in the 10 January 2020 issue under the headline “The rise of the EduTuber”

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