Could you learn something entirely from YouTube? Let’s try it out with Christmas

I have a Roku and an Apple TV — fancy — and when my parents were here for Thanksgiving, my dad didn’t know how to carve a turkey (he had seen it done, and done it, but this isn’t necessarily muscle memory stuff). My mom didn’t, I didn’t, and my wife didn’t, so officially we were completely all fucked. I put YouTube (from Apple TV) up on the main TV and searched “how to carve a turkey.” There were hundreds of results, as you might imagine, and we watched three; the one uploaded by Whole Foods turned out to be the best, and we got the turkey carved. Potential crisis averted, via the world’s largest video share site. Last night, the same thing happened. I went to a “Friendsgiving” type event and no one really knew how to carve. Luckily, at this point I knew what I needed to do.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in the context of stuff like Khan Academy. Could you learn something entirely from YouTube? Would it be possible? And if so, could that power be harnessed more broadly?

In fact, if you search “Can you learn anything on YouTube?” via Google (YouTube’s owner), you get about 101 million results, including this video:

I was initially going to apply this post to Thanksgiving, but that’s done and isn’t coming back for 11 months, so I figured it would lack utility. Then I thought about applying it to something I know nothing about whatsoever — let’s say knitting — and sure enough there’s this:

… and this:

I knew literally nothing about knitting — I didn’t even really know what type of prongs/tongs/whatever you call them to use — and within about 19 minutes, I could knit a small thing. Visual learning is clearly important.

I wanted to try and play this forward with Christmas. Would it be possible to figure out how to select a tree, how to make ornaments, how to decorate a tree, how to prepare a Christmas menu, and how to entertain others on Christmas all via YouTube? I figured it would be, but wanted to put it to a search test. I figure if this post appears on Reddit, someone will call it spam. (“This is just a series of YouTube videos!!!”) It is, but there’s kind of a broader point that I’ll get to. 

As for Christmas:

And then:

As for decorating:



Christmas Ham?

Whatever Gordon Ramsay eats for Christmas?

Want the entire movie of It’s a Wonderful Life?

I’ll stop there, but bear one thing in mind: for each of the examples above, when I was trying to find out how to do something — say, how to make Christmas cookies — there were usually about 300K+ options and I embedded one. For “Christmas dinner recipes,” there were about 600K, including stuff from Betty Crocker, etc. What’s embedded above is just a basic look at one or two videos per topic idea; it’s barely scratching the surface of what’s out there. You could honestly coordinate your family’s entire Christmas, virtually step-by-step, using YouTube.

What does all this mean? First off, from my perspective: the very nature of how we have to educate can shift. Look at this, for example: the Crash Course series. Want to learn about the 1960s?

A purist may argue that this context can’t make up for the interaction of a student and a teacher, or the power of a great teacher. Both of those things are inherently true. But there’s legitimate power and ideas here and surprisingly, not much has been written about it (that I can find). I’ve seen articles like this and this, but those mostly tell you what channels are “must-subscribes.” The notion of “flipping the classroom” is a big deal, but still not embraced by a ton of teachers/professors. Essentially, here’s the idea: rather than assigning a reading or a traditional homework assignment, students watch a video that goes through the topic the teacher needs covered. Essentially, the instruction — traditionally done in the classroom — is now being done outside the classroom, so inside the classroom (i.e. when you attend class), you can work on problem sets and bigger issue problems and get live feedback from the teacher — instead of doing those at home (traditional model) and possibly being frustrated because the teacher isn’t around. Some teachers record their own content, and others can use existing videos on YouTube; that Crash Course series embedded right above works for a lot of different topics, as does Khan Academy.

I’ve taken some classes in my life that were completely meaningless — I’m sure we all have — meaning bad teacher, phoning it in, syllabus not updated in 15 years, etc. It happens. It’s life. But sometimes in those classes, there’d be a final, and I’d have done all the readings, blah blah blah, and I’m still freaking out in advance of this final because I feel like I haven’t actually learned anything (this happened to me this fall with a class, actually). I’ll check a study guide and cross-reference a lot of the concepts on Google and YouTube; I learn more about them there, often, then I did in the actual class (which probably cost me $3700 if you break it down). To watch four videos on YouTube? That’s the cost of my Internet connection. That seems a little fucked-up, no?

It’s hard to turn traditional models on their head, but YouTube could be a great resource for education, and even for the “training” function of HR departments at larger organizations. You may not want to put your specific training module out there in case there’s specific info or secrets that others could cull from, but you may be able to create an evergreen-type playlist of “How To Dress” and “How To File Your Hours” and give that to new employees two weeks before their start date. There is cost involved in production and editing (time costs and salary for those doing the functions), but I bet it would save money off the way trainings are traditionally run.

There’s a lot of power in these models to completely shift how we approach new information: both its acquisition and its processing. If we live in a world where you can plan almost every aspect of a major holiday via one video channel, and can learn the basic historical trends of the 1960s via one video, why are we still educating and training en masse like we did before this existed? It seems to make no sense. NPR got to the idea in June of 2012. The New York Times got there two months ago. Maybe we can keep showing people the power of this model moving forward. There are definitely concerns including broader Internet access — which many are working to resolve every day — and lack of interaction (although the latter is kind of a farce, because the students probably interact more on the in-class stuff, since it’s a bit deeper than traditional lecture). My point is, though, how we can acquire information has changed; 20 years ago even, my dad might have called someone to ask about that turkey. Now it was available, from a professional, within about 30 seconds. That changes everything about the block of time we’re describing, and maybe some for the bad (he could have called a family member, made a connection on a holiday, etc.). But when you start thinking about the basic things we need to do as a society — educating our people, training them for jobs and responsibilities, etc. — we need to continue to embrace YouTube and video in general more and more.

Ted Bauer