YouTube: Educators’ Friend or Foe?
The rise of digital self-education

March 24, 2015
Category: education
Tags: , ,

My 12-year old nephew recently surprised his parents by excitedly announcing that his server had 45,000 visitors. Their first reaction was, “What server?” It turns out he’d built his own server within Minecraft, and had created his own suite of games.

He showed them the site and they asked him how on earth he learned how to build it. Had he taken a programming class at school? No, he’d simply watched free videos on YouTube on how to create a server and how to do basic game coding and commands. This boy who has trouble focusing on a textbook for more than 15 minutes voluntarily subjected himself to hours and hours of online video lessons. His parents had assumed all the time he spent sprawled on the floor with his laptop he was playing video games, not teaching himself how to make them.

He’s a bright and outgoing kid, but not the most diligent student. But learning code and programming a game from scratch take sustained focus and a real desire to learn. And he’d done it completely on his own – informally, independently, unmediated.

And he is no exception.

By the time they are in their tweens (and often even earlier), children are fully aware of the potential of online self-education.  They often view the Internet as their primary resource for learning, discovery, and skill development, and are thus less likely to turn to adults for information or assistance.  When it comes to acquiring new skills, kids prefer to educate themselves whenever possible – and they do so by turning to YouTube and other video-sharing sites for how-to videos on every topic imaginable.

Kids are impatient. When they want to learn something, they want to do so immediately, and have a real sense that they can teach themselves more quickly than could an adult in a formal class or program. They often prefer non-mediated learning, free from “mean” instructors. Why take instruction from an adult when you can just figure it out for yourself?

The “selfie-generation” is not just obsessed with self-documentation, sharing, and customization, but also with self-education.

Digital technology and Internet access have thus altered the role of parents as information providers and filters. Parents, caretakers, and educators are increasingly being displaced as imparters of skills and essential knowledge about the world – unless they do so in a video and post it on YouTube.

These resources also compete with participation in out-of-school programs.  And they have altered what kids look for in such programming, making many skill-building programs less compelling.

Video sharing sites like YouTube offer a variety of advantages as an educational source for tweens and adolescents:

  • Easy to access and free of cost
  • Complete instructional autonomy
  • Instruction is often provided by peers
  • No rules, no pressure, no demanding adults
  • Appeals to children’s desire for autonomy and empowerment
  • Precludes having to negotiate with caretakers over fees, scheduling, and transportation
  • Does not require the same level of commitment or investment


In other words, they’re ideal for impatient, autonomy-seeking, customization-obsessed, commitment-phobic, sharing-addicted adolescents.

In fact, educators are beginning to embrace the power of self-directed and self- mediated learning. Pilot programs have shown enormous promise: they clearly demonstrate the unexpected power of presenting students with challenges and problems and having them use the Internet to discover the answers and solutions on their own, in contrast to to having a teacher impart information in traditional lecture formats.

The Internet is not all about distraction, diversion, self-documentation, and gossip. It’s an informal, open-ended university that makes self-directed learning incredibly easy, and parents ever less a party to what kids decide to learn.

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