YouTube not just a site for entertainment, but education

An interesting set of smart, well-produced, educational channels have emerged on YouTube in the last couple of years. Alhough YouTube has, in general, degenerated into something resembling television, some educational series are worth the extra time spent watching the ads that come with them.

At the top of the list are Crash Course, a channel created by two brothers who themselves evolved from authors of purely entertaining content, and MinutePhysics, a series of short lectures on physics that can be accurately described as the video version of webcomic XKCD with more modest qualifications in the comic area.

John and Hank Green, the brothers behind Crash Course, became YouTube sensations by making a channel out of video messages to each other posted over the course of a year. Crash Course is a series of lessons, each about 10 minutes long. The first courses were in world history, taught by John, and biology, by Hank. Those courses finished and the brothers now teach U.S. history and chemistry, respectively. The subjects are somehow irrelevant, though. What makes them worth watching are mainly the writing and performing skills of the guys, especially John, who often delivers clever footnotes about society and the process of reaching adulthood. Of particular wit are the dialogues between him and his younger self, a student referred to as “me from the past.”

MinutePhysics, created by Henry Reich, deserves a bit more credit for its content. The channel features short videos with hand-drawn frames on topics ranging from the popular Schrödinger’s Cat experiment to an open letter to President Obama about the outdated high school physics curriculum in the United States. Even though Reich is certainly not the first specialist to step down to the layperson level to teach advanced physics, he is the first to successfully approach the YouTube format.

Video lessons are uniquely appealing due to their multimedia nature: More complex information can be transmitted more effectively than in any other unidirectional way. Yet, most educators still choose writing a book as a method for sharing knowledge. In an age where digital tools for production are widely available and video sharing online is easy and free, YouTube is underused as a media for knowledge transmission — especially since time is so scarce.

The successes of Crash Course and MinutePhysics are evidence of the effectiveness of education through vi-deo. The important lesson to take away from instructional channels like these is that it is not necessary to solely post 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. Charisma is an essential factor, no matter the content. In other words, as Crash Course’s John Green always says at the end of his lessons, “don’t forget to be awesome.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 8 print edition. Marcelo Cicconet is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]