Joseph Nathan Cohen

Department of Sociology, CUNY Queens College, New York, NY

Review: Teaching through YouTube Project (2011 – 2014)

Review of past tech service project.

This post details the background of a 2011 – 2014 project called Teaching through YouTube.  Its purpose was to explore the possibility of integrating YouTube videos into our teaching practices.  Click here to see a page that compiles material from that project.

The idea of using YouTube for learning now seems obvious.  YouTube has become a major medium in which all types of communication occur.  Back in 2011, YouTube looked a lot more like TikTok does today.  The platform was more youth-oriented.  Viral videos, music clips, and amateur vlogs were more prominent.  It was a newer platform, and we were trying to figure out how to use it.

This project’s goal was to explore the possibility of integrating YouTube into the Sociology curriculum.  It was early in the development of what we now know as a “hybrid” teaching model.  In fact, the project developed during Queens College’s first workshop on hybrid teaching.  

The Vision and Reality

I found myself moved by this vision of the hybrid classroom. I worked to develop resources to enable hybrid teaching in our statistics and methods curriculum.  YouTube struck me as a way for talented teachers to put themselves out there, just as colleagues do in written work.

Here’s a fun speech that I made at a technology and teaching workshop here at the College back in 2012.  I had recently discovered that students used YouTube to get explanations.  

I concluded that the medium had great potential, but also that there were pretty serious hurdles to overcome.  Production was a whole problem.  Colleagues can be very guarded in their public appearances.  I also came to see shortcomings in the hybrid model once I started working to put it into practice.  The reality was far less impressive than the promise — which is generally the case with technology in the classroom.  However, there were lessons to be learned:

Lessons from the Experience

People Love Consuming Videos.  Ultimately, some of the videos proved to be quite successful.  A few attracted tens of thousands of views.  Our students reported that the videos were helpful in understanding the material, and the analytics suggested that students used them throughout the semester.  Analytics suggested that subsets of videos would catch on in university networks, suggesting that word spread around specific classes after finding these videos in organic searches.  Feedback was positive from colleagues as well, who often included the videos in their syllabi and Blackboard resources.  Our videos appeared on syllabi at other universities.  The results of the end product led me to believe that video development could be a highly successful method for conveying knowledge and processing philosophical problems.  The problem was backstage and mainly involved the complicated practicalities of creating professor-produced scholarly videos.

YouTube Offered Massive Exposure.  Of everything that I learned and developed during this project, the insight that most affected me was that Web 2.0 platforms offered tremendous opportunities to reach audiences.  As mentioned at the outset, these videos reached very large audiences compared to the ones to which sociologists were then accustomed.  This is a more obvious insight today, but it might not have been so obvious back then.  I was surprised that I was able to attain a very good reach compared to conventional academic platforms (e.g., lectures, local op-eds, panels, newsletter writeups, journal articles, and even books).  At the very least, the medium provided outstanding opportunities to expose one’s ideas or content to the public.

Daunting Demands of Production.  The number one issue was that creating YouTube videos was a far bigger enterprise than I initially imagined.  Creating YouTube videos involves a range of skills for which scholars are generally not trained: script writing, performance, direction, camera work, lighting, or video editing.  It also required an understanding of the software and physical tools for recording videos.   It takes a tremendous amount of work (and setup) to create individual videos, including learning these new technical skills.  Most professors were not interested in learning and performing many necessary media production and web management tasks.  Creating a pipeline of in-house producers drawn from the undergraduate and graduate student pool proved challenging for several reasons.  Professors did not seem likely to create videos at scale without an easy equipment setup, guidance, and production help.

Many Colleagues are Uncomfortable on this Medium.  I was expecting it to be easy to find colleagues who would create for YouTube.  I was very wrong.  The vast majority of colleagues seemed uncomfortable with the idea of having their ideas recorded and retransmitted to the Internet.  It was generally that people were camera-shy.  They expressed anxiety about their looks, their age, the sound of their voice, and things like that. They all seemed to love to do regular academic communications (like writing, panels, lectures, or interviews), but that did not immediately mean that they liked other forms (like podcasts or videos).  People have different preferences and aptitudes in mass communications and many colleagues are not interested in creating videos for the Internet.  Guiding them to step out of their comfort zone is a big job in and of itself.

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