Where YouTube EDU Went Wrong (and how it might recover)

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YouTube‘s educational portal, YouTube EDU, entered its third year of operation this past week. In spite of some very optimistic publicity for its initial launch, its development as a teaching-and-learning tool has thus far proven rather lackluster. YouTube has shown little effort in expanding and supporting the site, and few institutions in higher education have made significant academic contributions to it.

YouTube.com/edu was originally intended as an opportunity for colleges and universities around the world to post educational content online for anyone’s free access. Schools in partnership with the site enjoy some interesting perks, such as unlimited upload length and the ability to advertise with built-in links. But YouTube EDU’s development and growth remain mediocre. For example, institutions in only nine other countries have posted content, with no new countries on board so far this year.

Schools of higher education seem partly to blame for their lack of effort to provide high-quality academic content. Instead of serving as an instructional portal as originally intended, much of YouTube EDU now consists of videos on marketing, athletics, and campus life. In searching the site, it’s rather difficult to find videos of professors actually teaching students. For example, in a search for the word “algebra”, 17 of the top 20 results come from Khan Academy—not an institution of higher ed.

Where are the contributions from our colleges and universities? The fact is that, overall, few people are watching the YouTube EDU videos. For example, as of April 3, 2011, only 742 viewers had clicked on Missouri State University’s EDU videos; only 1,494 did the same for Marquette U.

Contrast that with schools that lead the way in providing online academic content: 13,442 viewers had checked out videos put up by MIT; 13,671 had clicked on Harvard’s. This, we believe, illustrates a missed opportunity on the part of many schools, whose best promotional content really lies with their own instruction and research. Schools face a challenge to create academic-related videos that are very engaging to the viewer.

But Mallory Wood, assistant director of marketing at St. Michael’s College in Burlington, VT, recently pointed out to Higher Ed Live that YouTube EDU’s lack of educational content reflects deficiencies in YouTube’s own policy.

YouTube only allows schools to have a single channel (with the exception of a few early adopters), thus limiting their avenues to post different types of content on the site. And since most schools put their marketing departments in charge of that channel, many feel a need to post more promotional content than instructional. Wood maintains that “YouTube EDU, because it’s putting that entire channel in that space, and it’s trying to get [our] entire channel[s] to be academic, is in a way trying to tell us at the institutional level how to run our channels.”

“There’s room for all different types of content… not just academic,” she asserts, not wanting to label marketing video content as somehow bad. “It is inappropriate for YouTube EDU, though.” She agrees that academic video content is important for viewers’ intellectual enrichment, and adds, “I think that’s more of a failure of the way the system is working, not necessarily how we as higher education have failed YouTube EDU.”

The restrictive structure of the site somewhat ties the hands of educators. YouTube has not updated the EDU site in a year. Its directory search isn’t functioning. And while the application process is relatively simple, schools requesting to join EDU might wait several months before receiving a reply or a rejection. Schools not accepted as partners are limited to uploads of only 15 minutes or less, and find it hard to upload meaningful, representative content with such a time constraint.

We believe that schools of higher learning should have a place for nonacademic videos—but not on YouTube EDU. YouTube should allow each institution to have an EDU channel, but submissions should be filtered for academic content only. This would allow both schools and students to use the site with far greater focus and effectiveness.

So what can colleges and universities do to produce high-quality academic content for YouTube EDU? Posting full-length lecture courses online is okay for EDU partners, but more preferable (especially for non-partners) are more abbreviated videos on specific instructional or research topics—especially those that recur in a series to build a following of regular viewers. The University of California at Berkeley, for example, has built an impressive series on how to play guitar.

Wood adds that a successful video must tell an entertaining and relevant story that engages the viewer quickly. One good example we’ve found is a six-minute instructional video Cambridge U. has posted on energy preservation. Another important point to note is that a school’s channel should already have a representative amount of instructional videos available before applying for YouTube EDU partnership.

Most importantly, however, successful online videos have to teach—and to inspire and challenge students to learn.

Hopefully, YouTube EDU will grow into that teaching role.

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