YouTube is gearing up to transform the way we learn. At least that’s the message that came across loud and clear at this morning’s VidCon breakout panel on education. In an overflowing room of well over two hundred conference goers, head of YouTube Education Angela Lin led a panel of five leading video makers in a lively discussion, that gave a compelling glimpse of the future of online education. And it was a future that didn’t feature too many conventional lessons or institutionalized videos!
As the panel included John and Hank Green (SciShow, CrashCourse and a gazillion other things) I was expecting a room packed to the brim with their incredibly engaged teen fans – which it was. An odd audience you might think for a panel on education. But this was a serious, intelligent and engaged crowd, eager to listen to the panel, ask questions and provide their own insight on online learning. Joining the Green brothers were physics blogger Henry Reich (minutephysics), science YouTuber Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos), Mike Rugnetta, host of the PBS Idea Channel and Vi Hart of Mathemusician and the Khan Academy.
What was notable was that these panelists are all a) successful online educators (extremely so in some cases), b) not formally trained in teaching (to my knowledge) and c) not representing mainstream educational institutions (not counting PBS). This is important, because there was no doubt here that the excitement and impact surrounding online education is occurring outside conventional educational circles – and in many cases leaving them standing. John Green talked about this emerging online education community as being “disruptive,” while brother Hank talked about a “new kind of learning.” And everyone the panel agreed that education content on YouTube is where online music was five or six years ago, and on the cusp of something really big. But a big that might not necessarily include conventional educational institutions unless they get their act together!
On this point Henry Reich made the distinction between learning and teaching. Formal educators (as well as “informal educators” in museums and on educational TV programs) teach to a curriculum or a plan, with competencies, learning objectives and evaluation being the name of the game. But at the cutting edge of community online education, content developers are using their passion and interests to facilitate user-driven learning. And as John Green pointed out – endorsed by the packed room – people want to learn!
Bridging this gap between learning and teaching is perhaps going to be one of the biggest challenges – and opportunities – of online education over the next few years. Without question, there is a global hunger for learning, and some very talented individuals who are beginning to satisfy this hunger using an increasing array of online tools. This will undoubtedly help people develop and grow as individuals – but how do you also give them the tools to “do stuff” as opposed to simply enriching their understanding and satisfying their curiosity?
As new tools come online, educational institutions are jumping on the band-wagon to provide instructional content. Initiatives like Coursera and edX are bringing college course material to a far wide audience using online video. But even these innovations are in danger of looking turgid and outmoded in comparison to the new breed of community educators.
There are some moves to close this gap. Brady’s Periodic Table videos for instance are used by teachers to kick-start classes and inspire kids. And the Khan Academy is leading the field in terms of combining user-driven learning with practical teaching. But if teaching institutions want to keep up with the revolution in online learning, it seems pretty clear that they are going to have to radically rethink their ideas of web-based content. They are going to have to start partnering with and learning from the masters of online community education. And they are going to have to let go a bit and embrace the mess and madness of online educational content as they respond to a growing community’s desire to learn.
What seems clear after this panel is that we are at the beginning of an exciting revolution in online educational content. What is not clear is whether the teaching institutions can get their act together fast enough not to be sidelined in the rush toward online learning.