Let YouTube be your teaching guide, says expert

MIT professor tells teachers to follow pupils' online-savvy lead

Richard Vaughan

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Teachers should stop relying on traditional teaching methods in favour of 10-minute video lessons to capture the "wandering minds" of their students, according to a world expert on digital learning.

Lessons that lasted up to an hour and relied on pupils paying attention to a teacher at the front of the class were out of date and failed to address how young people learned in the internet age, said Sanjay Sarma, director of digital learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Professor Sarma (pictured, left) believes that schools and universities have been slow to come to terms with the reality that most of today's young people are doing their learning online, particularly through websites such as YouTube.

"The way we teach today is based on lectures, which is still a factory-style system," he said. "But cognitive science and cognitive psychology tell us that students learn in a way that, frankly, isn't compatible with lectures."

Students learned "in a more organic way", he said. In order to absorb knowledge they had to be given it when they needed it.

Professor Sarma said the idea would not be to replace all traditional lessons but to structure them properly so that students could learn in different ways.

"You can't do a 10-minute lecture in real life but you can certainly do [one] online," he said. "There's an enormous amount of literature that shows how you can tweak the learning process to make it friendlier to the student without compromising the content or the rigour."

He added: "The human mind wanders and what we do is make the student feel unhappy about it. In fact, you're better off doing 10-minute lectures and then asking the students questions about what they just learned, because that transfers stuff from our short-term memory to our long-term memory."

Although online learning has been possible for many years it has yet to make an impact in schools, for reasons such as technical limitations and a lack of support from teachers. But Professor Sarma said that adults needed to catch up.

"[Young people] spend hours each week consuming 10- or 20-minute titbits about physics and history or whatever on YouTube or Khan Academy," he said. "It's not `maybe this will be the future', it is the future. We just need to recognise it."

Earlier this year it emerged that Ark Schools, one of the country's biggest academy chains, was planning on setting up a school based on the blended learning model, in which e-learning is combined with traditional classroom methods. The Ark Pioneer Academy is due to open in September 2016 and its students will be doing a significant amount of learning on computers.

Drew Buddie, head of computing at the independent Royal Masonic School for Girls in Hertfordshire, said the vast majority of his students used internet videos as a learning tool but that too often it was shut out of schools.

"I often ask my students how they use YouTube, and all of them said it was predominantly to learn something, although they didn't immediately identify it with education," Mr Buddie said. "The problem is that many schools either don't have the broadband to cope with students streaming video or they have strict guidance where such websites are banned."

Miles Berry, principal lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton, said that schools were experimenting with online content but that longer forms still had a place.

"Academic and professional success needs the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time and the mastery of complex ideas and arguments. Good schools do all they can to help their pupils develop a love of learning, whether it's online, from books or face to face," he said.

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Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

Find me on Twitter @RichardVaughan1

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