Most instructors know the value of YouTube videos for supplementing instructional material. YouTube has a wealth of instructor- and expert-created content that can vividly illustrate course concepts. But instructors can use YouTube for more than just instructional content. They can also use it as the basis of assignments to initiate student thinking on the practical application of course content.
Making problems out of videos
Matthew Liberatore of the Colorado School of Mines initiated YouTube Fridays (YTF) in his thermodynamics class as a way of getting students to apply what they learned to real-world situations (Liberatore et al., 2012). He put them into groups of three to five at the beginning of the term and assigned each group a Friday class to open with a presentation. Students needed to base these on a YouTube video they found, and each group had to use the video to create a problem that would be solved in class, either by the group or the class as a whole.
For example, one group found a video of a wind turbine spinning out of control and ripping itself apart. This gave students the idea of asking what hurricane-force winds would do to wind turbine. They applied course concepts to calculate the mass flow rate of air in a 100 mph wind on the area of a wind turbine; not surprisingly, they found it to be quite high. This demonstrated how erecting wind turbines in a hurricane zone is a bad idea.
The beauty of this assignment is that it requires students to survey different videos and ask about the underlying engineering principles at work in them. This helps them see how what they learn applies to the real world as well as teaches them to look at situations through the eyes of an engineer, one of the most important elements of their education. It also provides the instructor with valuable teaching material not just for the current class but also in the future. For instance, Liberatore used a student presentation on a fail video of someone sledding into a car to initiate a class discussion on how to calculate the kinetic energy that the person transferred to the car.
The student examples display a remarkable amount of creativity. One group used a video on the dangers of everyday appliances to ask how fast a hot water heater would accelerate if the pressure were allowed to build and it was turned into a rocket. The answer was a surprising 1,300 meters per second squared, which compares to the 7 meters per second squared of a Porsche’s acceleration. Another group used a video on how condoms are made to create a process flow diagram of their manufacture, another subject covered in class.
A second genre of student projects was fact or fiction tests, a kind of Mythbusters series where students tested the claims made in a video. In one case, students showed a video of someone going down a Slip ’N Slide on a ramp, flying through the air, and landing in a kiddie pool. This stunt struck students as suspicious, so they built a mathematical model of the scenario using energy principles, assumptions about the ramp, and so on to show that the stunt was not possible and thus the video was a fraud. Interestingly, the actual Mythbusters program featured the same video, which they tested using an actual slide, reaching the same conclusion. Another group showed a video of someone who bundled together tubes made of bacon strips, connected them to an air compressor, lit the bacon on fire, and used the resulting torch to cut through a plate of steel. Surprisingly, the math showed that this was entirely possible given the amount of energy in bacon fat!
Error detection videos
There are a variety of additional ways to create student activities using YouTube videos. One is to have students find YouTube videos containing errors related to the course content. For instance, I recently ran across a video purporting to show that the infinite series 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 . . . equals −1. It would make for a good video to start a class because the issue requires not the application of difficult calculus techniques but rather an understanding of the fundamental principles of calculus. In short, infinity was thought to break math (as in Zeno’s paradoxes) until calculus tamed it with limits. But limits apply only to convergent series that close in on a number, such as ½ + ¼ + ⅛ . . . = 1; they do not apply to divergent series that grow indefinitely. The video uses a divergent series, which is the error, and is a good example of why math cannot work with a divergent infinite series.
This kind of video takes students out of the weeds of wrestling with specific calculus problems to remind them of what calculus is all about. Giving students periodic opportunities to step back and look at a topic as a whole can help keep them grounded in underlying principles, especially in a class like calculus, where students often just try to memorize processes without really understanding what they are doing. Liberatore considers these presentations well worth the class time they use, and student surveys showed that they generally helped students learn the course material.
While it may seem that non-STEM fields, like my own, philosophy, are not amenable to mistake detection videos because the interesting topics admit of reasonable disagreement rather than widely accepted answers, there is still space for such videos. There are numerous videos on medical ethics cases of the sort we cover in my courses, and students can find videos whose conclusions they disagree with or that leave certain options or considerations unaddressed.
Instructors often warn students away from social media platforms like YouTube under the belief that the information is not as reliable as in academic journals, and while that might be true, this objection misses the possible non-research uses of social media in education. In particular, the unreliability of social media presents ways for instructors to combine the appeal of online videos with course concepts and the curiosity that puzzles elicit to offer students a treasure trove of situations for applying what they have learned. As in the case of the math example above, YouTube videos can also provide an opportunity to remind students of underlying principles that are easy to forget when working in narrow areas of a field, thus deepening student understanding of how the field applies to the world around them.
Liberatore, M. W., Vestal, C. R., & Herring, A. M. (2012). YouTube Fridays: Student led development of engineering estimate problems. Advances in Engineering Education, 3(1). https://advances.asee.org/wp-content/uploads/vol03/issue01/papers/aee-vol03-issue01-p02.pdf