What Does The Future of Educational YouTube Content Look Like?

YouTube is making changes to how it presents educational content — and edutubers are teaching us how to live today

Molly Horan
Dec 2, 2019 · 5 min read
Image: Unsplash

“We just want to make educational content that’s helpful for as many people as possible,” Hank Green explains in a trailer on Crash Course, the educational YouTube Channel Hank and John Green, of Vlogbrothers (and book writing) fame have run since uploading their first animated videos focusing on world history and chemistry back in 2012.

They’ve now created over twenty different courses (and amassed over 10 million subscribers) ranging from literature to psychology to business, often bringing in hosts with different sets of expertise and audiences to launch a new subject, including recent Crash Course Business — Soft Skills host Evelyn Ngugi.

For Ngugi, the host of her own successful channel Evelyn from the Internets, the difference between creating content for the classroom (however unconventional that classroom might be) and content for her own channel meant thinking about content creation, and more importantly, consumption, in a completely different way. “I learned that ‘educon’ is often a slow burn, with metrics being monitored over time, versus the instant gratification of making one video that is expected to receive lots of views immediately,” she explains. “This type of content comes in handy, but only when you need it.”

And when it comes to who needs it? She learned from educators who are making channels like Crash Course a part of their lesson plan. “Main takeaway: having a diverse cast of hosts is super helpful and encouraging for the students,” she says.

Crash Course is one of several educational YouTube channels that received a piece of the $20 million investment YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki pledged to help support educational content late last year. The announcement on YouTube’s official blog opened with the story of a vet who used trigonometry tutorials to inspire and prepare himself to study physics at a local community college. And that’s just the kind of independent learning and connection to more traditional institutions of learning YouTuber Vanessa Hill sees when she considers her channel, Brain Craft’s audience.

Hill has been making videos about things like the science of jet lag and how to stay motivated for over five years. Her channel was born, in part, when Hill, then teaching, realized she could fill gaps in the curriculum with her own content. But the scope of her viewers now goes beyond the kids in traditional classrooms she was considering when she first started uploading videos.

“User comments have influenced how I picture the audience — learners of all ages who watch videos in a lot of different settings, on the bus, in bed when they can’t sleep, with their kids on their TV,” she says. “I’ve received a lot of messages about how my content has inspired people to return to college to study psychology.”

Hill sees edutube spreading in the same way other content on the platform has. She envisions the world of watching videos on the bus and the classroom that first gave her the idea for a channel coming together. “I think we will reach a point when formal education will somewhat merge with credible YouTube content,” she says. “A lot of my videos are used in university textbooks, and new sites like outlier.org have launched to make accredited online courses when students can earn degrees through their video platform very economically, compared to traditional institutions. Online video has disrupted education, and will continue to do so.”

For some channels, the future means expanding to other platforms, and looking at ways to help students learn even after they finish a video, like Crash Course’s upcoming app. “The app will provide custom illustrated flashcards and a testing mode so users can learn the way they want to at the difficulty they set,” says Brandon Brungard, a Crash Course producer and editor.

Henry Reich of Minute Physics sees the change in the educational video landscape over the last eight years, when he first started uploading his short animated lessons, as a shift in scope and the way creators make content. “The bar has been raised an incredible amount in terms of the quality of explanations, the differing content areas covered, and so on,” he says. Money also plays a factor. “The economics of making an educational YouTube channel now are also significantly different,” he says. “Initially a content creator would rely on AdSense revenue for the majority of their income. Now I would say corporate sponsorships and crowdfunding are much more important in order to keep educational channels running.” Support for recent Minute Physics videos have come from documentary streaming service CuriosityStream and password manager Dashlane.

Those companies are buying in to educational content in large part because YouTube has thrown its weight behind it, too.

“Educational content has been a part of YouTube since the platform’s inception, says Melanie Galindo, YouTube’s Product Communications Senior Associate. From learning how to tie a tie to how to master SQL, YouTube has always been a place for people to learn new enriching skills, fill in academic gaps with supplemental education, master “just in time” life hacks, and more.”

When it comes to offering support for what YouTube has dubbed edutubers, the $20 million Learning Fund gave content producers like Crash Course and Rachel’s English something more than money. It gave them access to new features that help give students a better learning environment even when their classroom has become their screen, including the “learning playlist.”

“A Learning Playlist is a dedicated learning environment for people coming to YouTube to learn,” Galindo says. “New organizational features provide more structure, dividing a collection of videos into chapters around key concepts, starting from beginner to more advanced.” Astoundingly for a platform that relies on keeping you watching, YouTube has even shorn recommendations from videos in a Learning Playlist, “allowing the viewer to focus on the lesson at hand,” says Galindo.

Learning Playlists group educational videos together with info on objectives and outcomes, making it easier for students to map out their online education.

Like Hill, Galindo sees the future of YouTube’s educational content as a place where education can be gained by anyone with an internet connection, drastically increasing the number of people who can claim access to education. “With millions of people coming to YouTube every day to learn, the learning movement is already happening on the platform,” she says. “Over the next five years, we’ll continue our efforts to democratize the way people learn and make YouTube a home for lifelong learning in the modern era.”

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