International Perspectives: Children and YouTube in school contexts – some reflections from the field of research

Written by Inés Dussel

I have been studying the digitisation of schools for several years now. In Argentina, where I grew up, I analysed the changes in teaching and learning brought by a massive technology program that equipped each student with a laptop. Since moving to Mexico in 2011, I have been doing research on young people’s digital practices and about the transformation of classroom interactions with digital media.

I am currently working on an international project on digital inequalities in schools (Reconfigurations of educational in/equality in a digital world, or RED), in which we are studying policies, school practices and students’ data profiles in five countries (Argentina, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, and Sweden). We are interested in understanding how schooling is being reconfigured through new educational technologies in different regions of the world, and the ways in which these changes might be exacerbating, reproducing, or creating new forms of inequality and/or promoting equality.

One of the sub-projects of RED focuses on the platformization of education, and particularly on the uses of digital media platforms within school practices. Together with a colleague from Argentina, Patricia Ferrante, and another one from Mexico, Benito Castro, we are looking at how teenagers use YouTube for school purposes in Argentina and Mexico. YouTube is definitely one of the most popular platforms for video sharing in the world, and it is particularly popular with children and teenagers: according to a recent survey by OfCom-UK, 89% of children have used the video platform in the last year.

However, its impact on how we know and what we know has been less studied. Following Lisa Gitelman’s work, we want to understand the marks that digital platforms leave on the knowledge that they help us produce; in the case of YouTube, these marks are left by search algorithms that order search results according to popularity and previous searches, and that might compete or contradict the ordering and hierarchies proposed by the school curriculum. Search algorithms organize the most valuable results in a list that is hierarchized by which websites have been more visited; this might not always be what the school or the scientific community considers as the ‘right’ answer.

In our research, we focused on school uses of YouTube by children, which differ from home uses. We conducted individual and group interviews and surveys with school students in four schools (two in Mexico City, with 60 students, and two in Buenos Aires, with 116 students). We found that:

  • All students report that they watch YouTube daily, some of them several hours per day; they mostly watch YouTubers and music videos, but also video gamers and “funny videos”. Most of this watching is incidental: it pops out from the recommendation tab of the platform, or it is shared by a friend.
  • Almost all students use YouTube for studying, mostly for tests and for “fixating” knowledge, as they say. Interestingly, children perform searches to find school-related content, which implies a more active role than just viewing what comes out automatically. To find content, most students type the topic of the school assignment and add the word “explanation” (as in “independence+war+explanation”); they report that this is how they find content that is useful for school purposes.
  • Most students report that they stay within the first results they find, but they mobilize some criteria to decide what to watch: they look at the views and the likes that the video got, or the comments that other users have left on the platform but above all they privilege the duration of the video. Short videos (3-5 minutes) are highly valued in an attention economy that rewards quick, fast findings.
  • Together with short duration, fragmentation is another feature of this kind of viewing. Students use the key bar at the bottom of the screen to move forward until they find what they consider is “the answer” to their question. Few students mention rewinding and watching videos again for further or better understanding; cross-referencing or further readings are marginalized in these ways of knowing.
  • Children also use captions to make sure they are understanding what they are watching, particularly with videos in English, which are viewed only by more affluent students. The country of origin is not important as a criterion for selecting videos, nor if they are aligned with the national curriculum or their school’s pedagogy. While this study was conducted in two countries, we suspect the consumption of transnational content can be found in other countries as well.
  • Educational youtubers are quite popular among students. The ones they prefer are teachers turned into youtubers who produce short, unsophisticated videos that last less than five minutes. Only rarely students identify names or authors of the videos; when talking about the videos they use for studying, they refer to a general category, “YouTube videos,” irrespective of who produced them or its genre. In this way, the platform becomes a kind of authorial voice that blurs the qualities and specific traits of the videos.

What emerges in the survey and interviews with children are practices that are aligned with the platform’s algorithms: preferences for influencers, short duration, popularity as judged by viewers and likes, and transnational media content. Even if they have some differences with non-school uses, for example in terms of active searches, the children who participate in our study also delegate their preferences to what the platform considers as valuable and noteworthy. This has several implications in terms of knowledge practices. Digital media has been flagged as the site of interactive and creative knowledge, but in these usages, YouTube does not seem to arouse curiosity or bring in constructivist pedagogies – that is, pedagogies that value the cognitive activity of students and their participation in knowledge construction. On the contrary: these videos are brought to improve students’ academic performance and are mostly used when studying for tests. Knowledge is conceived as a pre-defined entity that is out there and that is imprinted or “fixated” on the mind.

It is noteworthy that, at least in three of the four schools in which we conducted our study, constructivist pedagogies were prevalent, so students do not seem to be following their teachers’ requests when they use these videos for studying. This needs to be further studied, but it can be speculated that they reenact prior study practices that consider knowledge as a finished, highly stable product that must be “recorded” in their minds. In that respect, YouTube videos contribute to reinforce this conception of knowledge that schools are trying to overcome. The platform provides a shortcut that make children’s study practices more time-efficient (“get to the point”) but not necessarily richer or denser, and certainly not more critical.

Our study was conducted with students who were 14-16 years old. Evidently, their use of the platform is related to academic tasks that are typical of that age and might not be present in younger years. While more studies should be conducted with preschool and primary school students, it can be suspected that the reliance on the platform’s values and hierarchies is not that different. And that these findings pose questions and challenges for early years educators: how have children been educated in these first years? Which critical skills have children developed towards online searches and video platforms? How can children be educated to better understand what is at stake in these new ways of knowing?

As a final comment, I want to make it clear that I have no doubt that algorithmic platforms are making our lives easier and that they have brought an incredible amount of wealth and diversity to human cultures. Yet the epistemic and political costs that these platforms are having on our ways of knowing remain opaque and are not discussed in the public agenda on children, schools, and digital media. I hope that this study sparks similar studies in other regions and with other age groups, that shed more light into how knowledge is changing and how this will affect children’s futures.

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