An interesting set of smart, well produced, educative channels have emerged on YouTube in the last couple of years. Though YouTube, in general, degenerated to something resembling television, some educational series are really worth the extra time spent watching ads.
That there are internet based educative programs is no news. Universities have been offering online courses for many years now, iTunes has a whole section dedicated to educative videos (iTunes U), Massive Open Online Course websites are starting to pop-up (see Coursera and Udacity, for instance), and of course there’s TED. But in what concerns YouTube, a user-generated database where the popularity of videos is guided more by a survival-of-the-fittest rule than by an intelligent-design principle, it took a while for educative content to get notoriety.
But it eventually happened. At the top of the list, Crash Course, a channel created by two brothers who themselves evolved from authors of futile content, and MinutePhysics, a series of short lectures on physics that can be fairly described as the video version of XKCD with more modest qualifications in the comic area.
Crash Course is run by John and Hank Green, who became YouTube sensations by making a channel out of video messages to each other during a year (the Brotherhood 2.0 project). Crash Course consists of a series of 10-ish minutes long lessons, at first in World History (by John) and Biology (by Hank). Those courses finished and the brothers now teach English Literature and Ecology, respectively. The subjects are somehow irrelevant, though. What makes them worth watching are mainly the writing and performing skills of the guys, specially John, who often engages in clever jokes and interesting self-conscious footnotes about society and the process of reaching adulthood. The dialogs between him and his younger version, a student he refers to as “me from the past,” are just brilliant. Take a look at the first episode of the World History series, for instance.
MinutePhysics, by Henry Reich, deserves a bit more credit for the content. The channel features short videos, with hand-drawn frames, about physics. Topics range from the popular Shrodinger’s Cat thought experiment to an open letter to President Obama about the outdated high-school physics curriculum in the U.S. Though Reich is certainly not the first specialist that steps down to the layperson level to teach advanced physics, he is the first to successfully approach the YouTube format, at least if you measure by the number of subscribers.
As of late January 2013, MinutePhysics had about 950 thousand subscribers, ranking 170 among all channels, according to that criterium. In comparison, Apple’s channel is at position 176. Crash Course appeared in the 484th position, with about 450,000 subscribers, passing, for instance, CBS’s channel (534th).
There are of course a few other good examples of high-quality educative channels, such as Sixty Symbols (for the physics aficionado), and OULearn (for a sample, watch their “60 seconds adventures” series in economics and thought). But this is not meant to be a complete list. The point is that, thankfully, it’s not necessary to “follow the crowd” and explore the ridiculous, the laughable, the sex appealing, the feline, or the equine (I’m looking at you, Gangnam Style and your parodies), to become popular on YouTube.
What makes video lessons interesting is obvious: due to the multi-media nature of the format (audio, text, images, animations), more complex information can be transmitted, generally faster than in any other “unidirectional” way. Yet, most educators still chose writing a book when the thought of sharing knowledge comes to mind. Perhaps that’s the right choice in certain areas (such as math and philosophy) where some reflexion should happen after information is acquired, or maybe authors don’t have the skills to produce video content of good quality. However, considering that tools for video production are widely available (most laptops these days come with cameras and Movie editors), and that video sharing online is easy and free, video is definitely underused as a media for knowledge transmission, specially in times where time is so scarce.
Now, if you are planing to launch yourself on a vlog journey, even if it’s just for the sake of making a name, consider that, as Oliver and Young wrote many decades before even the Internet existed, “t’aint what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” Or, as Crash Course’s John Green always mentions to finish his lessons, “don’t forget to be awesome.”
(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)