The Google Plus logo

Have you ever used YouTube to learn something?

This blog first appeared on the LINE website on July 19th 2011

You’re devising a new marketing campaign and plan to use a QR code as a measurable way of directing traffic from your printed ads to a purchase page on your website but you’re not sure how. At home, in no particular order, you need to repair a water-damaged door frame, tie a bow-tie, fix a lawn-mower, learn a tricky guitar riff and make a Thai curry. With knowledge gaps as diverse as this, what do you do?

I know that when faced with similar situations, one of my first ports-of-call is YouTube. A quick search on the video social media site never fails to amaze me – I can’t count the number of times I’ve found a thorough, visual demonstration of the task I’m attempting. Finding the most relevant video is as easy as a Google search (of course Google owns YouTube, so the search facility is practically identical) and then comments and ratings beneath the video can be helpful too when judging its learning value as well as how you might approach the task.

I know from the vast number of hits accrued on many demonstrative videos on YouTube that I’m not the only one who uses it to learn new skills (for example, Killer Presentation Skills has close to a million hits and How to Tie a Bow Tie currently has over 1.5m hits), but I wanted to discover what it is that drives these people there in the first place. Which subject areas are most popular with YouTube learners?

I decided I’d post a simple question on the eLearning Guild’s LinkedIn group discussion board: “Have you ever used YouTube to teach yourself something?”

I was delighted that members of the Guild really engaged with the question and with 168 comments over the course of two months, it was the most popular discussion thread in the group. Responses were immensely varied, with members learning everything from personal pursuits such as crochet techniques and personal finance approaches to formal education such as algebra and English revision aids, as well as workplace learning including editing software skills and customer service skills. The fact that the responses were so varied was fantastic but perhaps not all that surprising considering the breadth of material available on YouTube.

I’ve done my best to analyse the group members’ responses, but please note that my categorising has at times been quite general due to the variation of answers and the open ended nature of the question.

respondents who have used youtube to teach themselves something

It was a predominantly US respondent base (68%), with 8% from the UK and 6.4% from India forming the top three.

In response to the actual question, “Have you ever used YouTube to teach yourself something?” the response was an overwhelming ‘Yes’. 96% of the respondents indicated that they had, at some point, used the site to learn something (Fig. 1). Of course this number represents a group of internet savvy members of the eLearning Guild rather than the average internet user and people that had never learnt anything from YouTube might be less inclined to write a response than those who had. Nonetheless, it is a significantly large number; clearly a considerable proportion of respondents have discovered the learning benefits of YouTube.

This brings me onto the point I was really driving at with the initial question. YouTube is the third most blocked website by global businesses. According to an OpenDNS report published earlier this year, Facebook is the most blocked site (23%) then MySpace (13%) and in third place, YouTube, with 12% of businesses choosing to block it from their employees.

respondents who have used youtube to learn a hobby

With these figures in mind I was interested to see how many eLearning Guild respondents had indicated a possible use for YouTube in a professional environment. Bearing in mind that the question only asked group members whether they had learned anything at all, not asking them what they had learned or anything relating to whether it was personal or business based. I was not surprised to see that 86% of the responses mentioned that YouTube had helped them with a pastime or hobby (Fig. 2) but I was surprised to see that over half (52%) of respondents had indicated a use of the site to learn something within a professional environment (Fig. 3).

respondents who have used YouTube to learn in a professional environment

Despite the variation of learning categories, a skills area break down of respondent’s answers indicates what they are heading to YouTube to teach themselves.

skills areas learned by respondents

The skills areas chart (Fig. 4) shows a big inclination towards hands-on activities with DIY tasks, arts and crafts, cooking, IT repair, musical training and sports and leisure activities all trending strongly. People clearly find they can easily engage with video demonstrations of complicated manual procedures.

Also showing a high trend is formal education or support for formal education. Many responses sited university lectures they could view on YouTube, many teachers used YouTube videos as part of a blend in their work and many students found they could find helpful explanations of tricky subject areas at school. Many respondents also referred to the Khan Academy in their comments. An online library containing over 2,400 videos, all embedded from YouTube, “covering everything from arithmetic to physics, finance and history”, as they put it. The Academy is free and has delivered over 63 million lessons since its inception in 2006.

Nearly one fifth of the respondents indicated that they had used YouTube to help them with editing software skills and 7.2% said they used it to brush up on IT skills. Photo editing, video editing and word and spreadsheet processing were regularly listed. Clearly the not-so IT savvy audience can learn more efficiently with visual demonstrations rather than potentially jargon-filled word explanations.

And what of the respondents who indicated they had used YouTube to learn in a professional environment (Fig. 5)?

skills areas learned by respondents who indicated they have used YouTube to learn professionally

‘General professional skills’ refers to the members who indicated in their responses that they had used YouTube to learn at work but were not subject specific.

High trends towards IT skills and and editing software show that YouTube is being relied on as a resource to tackle everyday niggles and program uncertainties. The brevity of the average video makes it a valuable resource for rapid solutions to problems.

The high presence of YouTube being used within formal education by teachers and students and its relatively low presence in direct skills training within corporations suggests that businesses might want to take note of its potential. Customer service skills training, financial skills, marketing and technical training all feature in a minor way above. However the caveat with this piece of analysis is that the question was not asking members of the Guild what they had learned at work via YouTube; simply whether they had used it to learn something. In addition, the fact that nearly a third of the responses by people who indicated they use YouTube at work weren’t specific as to how, suggests that we shouldn’t read too meaningfully into the the low trends of specific work based subject areas.

But the 12% of businesses who have banned YouTube, have barred it presumably on grounds of HR policy, as well as concerns over staff productivity, cutting down on what they see as internet time wasting. In fact many businesses do recognise the efficacy and low cost of small videos, and many of them are developing their own internal video libraries. However the libraries could never be as far-reaching as YouTube and the information in this report highlights a double-edged sword for businesses. Cutting out the non-professional side of YouTube may increase the organisation’s productivity because it cuts down on cyber-slacking, however it may also decrease productivity when employees spend longer trying to find out how to perform a simple task, like in Excel or PowerPoint, when they could have found out in seconds on YouTube.

According to these findings YouTube is used as a learning tool most frequently for hands-on tasks, so organisations which require regular training in manual areas would do well to take note. However, it seems that people are going to YouTube to learn pretty much anything so it shouldn’t stop there. As a learning tool YouTube is all-encompassing and I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so.