The Perils and Possibilities of YouTube

How to make YouTube appropriate for the classroom

digital citizenship and students onlineYouTube can provide students and educators with hundreds of powerful educational videos that can deepen learning, and we cover finding those videos elsewhere. But a lot of times actually showing those videos to your students requires navigating a minefield of irrelevant results, unpleasant comments and ads featuring people who are going to catch pneumonia unless they put a shirt on.

But it can be done: let’s look at ways to make YouTube appropriate for the classroom.

how to make YouTube appropriate for your classroom

What’s on YouTube?

Here. Do this quick experiment. Go to YouTube and in the search field, enter “oranges”. That’s it. Hit Search. What were your results like? Mine were …mixed at best. The top ones were:

  • A trailer for a movie called “Dirty Grandpa” (I do not want to know. Do not tell me. Not even in the comments.)
  • An ad for a wheelchair-accessible van
  • Three short videos featuring The Annoying Orange, which features an animated orange telling obnoxious middle-school jokes, one of which features a homophobic slur and ends in (animated) violence. I didn’t watch the others.
  • A music album by the group Taxonomy
  • A video tutorial on peeling oranges the easy way
  • A super-useful video showing how oranges are grown and harvested

That last video provides a ton of useful, in-depth knowledge that would be amazing in an Economics or Environmental Sciences unit, but that’s only one link out of six, where the other five ranged from off-topic to offensive. That’s a very poor signal-to-noise ratio, so I can definitely understand why some educators have a strong aversion to this otherwise incredibly powerful platform.

And that’s without even looking at the ads.

Or the comments. Don’t get me started on the comments.

Two ways to make YouTube appropriate for the classroom

1. Blocking and filtering tools

Here are a few of our favorite filtering tools for YouTube:

how to make YouTube appropriate for the classroom

  • This Chrome extension, Hide YouTube Comments, does what it says on the tin: it hides comments on YouTube videos. All of them.
  • This Firefox plugin, No YouTube Comments, works similarly for the Firefox browser.
  • And this spectacular piece of coding, Hide Fedora, gives you the option of replacing negative comments with cats in Chrome, Firefox and Opera.

Yes, cats.

school approaches to internet filtering


2. Teaching your students appropriate engagement with problematic online content

Yeah, this one’s a toughie, and it’s only going to work for certain age groups, but bear with me.

You and I both know that when you’re not looking, your students are bopping around the internet watching the “Dirty” version of Beyoncé’s Formation, and even in the “Clean” version Bey uses some mighty salty language and there is no amount of pixelating that can obscure what she’s doing with her hands. But those objections aside, she’s also working with a lot of historically relevant themes: the Black Power movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Hurricane Katrina, violence against Black women, religious themes, and the whole landscape of Black Southern womanhood, in a way that arguably no one else is.

No one else, that is, who has such a wide popular reach.

(Here’s a really fascinating and nuanced analysis of “Formation” if you want to delve further, but it too features some salty language.)

There are, obviously, quite a few barriers to teaching Beyoncé in school, as detailed by @TheOnlyMsV here, but it’s emblematic of content that students find compelling but which also contains problematic elements.

That’s kind of YouTube in a nutshell.

There’s something vaguely unsettling about ViewPure’s concept of “purifying” videos for student consumption, even if that is the best way to bring the videos into compliance with COPPA. Your students don’t live in a purified world. Their lives are messy and difficult and inspiring and chaotic, and to expect them to turn that off once they get online is unreasonable. The trick is to give students age-appropriate tools to help them use Internet content to help them move forward.

Learning how to leave comments (that don’t get turned into cats)

Take YouTube comments, for example. (Take them far, far– okay, I’ll stop.)

Super-smart educator Dave Baroody found this extensive Google Doc for getting in-depth on teaching students how to leave comments, respond to other users’ comments and conduct civil disagreements online. As Baroody pointed out, it’s especially great for working through this process with middle school students.

how to make YouTube more appropriate for the classroom

So how about it:

How do you make YouTube appropriate for your classroom?

Audrey Homan

Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and producer of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time writes tiny video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

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