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Helping Students Evaluate Online Video for Research

Bill Bass

At some point during the 2005-2006 school year, my students introduced me to an online video sharing site where anyone could upload and share a video with the world. At that time the site was only a few months old and was still very much in its infancy, but YouTube would soon become an Internet sensation and a part of my daily life. At that point though, I hadn’t heard much about it and truly, I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned the video on the site was of such poor quality and the platform was so buggy that I was unable to see the potential that was sitting before me. What I saw was a bunch of dumb videos that had been uploaded to this website, distracting my kids from doing their real work. Like most school districts, our technology department blocked YouTube pretty quickly and I no longer concerned myself with the idea of online video as something that would influence my classroom. I was wrong.

Not two months after Youtube was blocked in my school, one of my students, Shantel, and I sat down to confer about a cross-curricular research paper she was doing in conjunction with her science class. She had met with her science teacher during the last class period and was disappointed in the result.  It quickly came out that she wasn’t allowed to use one of her main sources of information because her science teacher didn’t deem it to be reputable. The source: YouTube. In her online research, Shantel had stumbled across a video lecture by a scientist that helped her understand the topic. It wasn’t that she couldn’t find the information elsewhere, it’s that she found it in this video and wanted to use that as her source because the video helped her understand where the texts she had found didn’t. Her problem was she couldn’t prove that the creator of the video was credible. There was little identifying information with the video, and nothing in it that would lead to verification of the information.

I knew that Shantel would not be the last student I had looking to online video as a way to do research for a paper. Rather, it was just the beginning. The first 10 years of my career I spent countless hours teaching kids how to find, evaluate, and work with text sources (both print and online), but video was often out of their reach because it wasn’t as easily accessible.  How do we teach kids (and adults) to be critical consumers of online videos when, at the time of this writing, 100 hours of video are being uploaded every minute. We teach kids how to verify the reliability of a website, but how do those skills translate to a YouTube video?

Maybe we need to take one step further back. How do we approach online video as a source? Do we offer and encourage students like Shantel to do research using videos they find on YouTube? If not, why not? Take TED Talks as just one example. Every TED Talk video that has ever been released can be found on their YouTube channel. These speakers are experts in their fields, and while the information found in these talks can probably be found elsewhere, does the fact that they are posted on YouTube make them any less relevant or reliable? The medium is different but that doesn’t make the information any less accurate, and certainly doesn’t make the speaker any less credible. What it does require is intentional instruction around how video can be used for research, and how to help students become critical consumers of platforms that host these videos.

YouTube is far and away the most prolific video sharing site on the Internet today. With the power of Google behind it, this has become the “go to” site for online video. Because of that, Youtube gets more attention and is probably the first site that comes to mind when we think about online videos. With this in mind, let me give you some pointers about how to “read” a YouTube video. This isn’t about video production or even about the content of the video itself. Rather, just like with a website, there are clues to the reliability of any YouTube video that’s posted.

  1. User profile -- Look at the profile of the person who posted the YouTube video. Every TED talk video that is posted is done under the TEDtalksdirector username. Just as we look for websites and blog posts that can be tied to an actual person who is forthcoming about their identity, the same strategy can and should be used with YouTube videos. Check and see if there is a URL that points back to a personal or organizational website. On that site students should be able to find more information about who has uploaded these videos based on the content of the site. If there’s no link, the content of that YouTube channel should be considered suspect.
  2. Videos posted -- Each YouTube user account has a channel that houses all of the videos that the user has uploaded. Browse back through the other videos posted by the owner of the account looking for other reliable videos. Based on past videos, does this channel’s owner seem to be reliable or knowledgeable about the topic? If they post videos on a variety of seemingly unrelated topics or if this is their first video, more research should probably be done.
  3. Date posted -- When was the video posted? Much of the video that lives on YouTube is out of date. For instance, I have created a number of tutorials for online tools and have posted them to YouTube to share with teachers. However, these online tools change regularly, making the videos that I’ve posted quickly become dated or no longer relevant. Rather than taking them down, these videos have become part of my online portfolio and footprint, showcasing the work I’ve done in the past. These dated videos should no longer be considered reliable, but that doesn’t mean that my newer content isn’t reliable.
  4. Content -- How is the content presented in the video? Does it look professional, like the creator took the time to plan and edit the video, or does it look amateurish and haphazard? Asking yourself whether or not the production value meets your expectations for an online video can be a good gauge. If the message is vague, sensationalistic, or seems overly persuasive, this may suggest that it’s time to look further.
  5. Comments -- Sometimes the comments that are posted with a YouTube video are pretty awful. There are things we don’t really want our students to see. However, there are plenty of things that we can learn from looking at the comments in YouTube videos. For instance, does the video creator interact with other commenters? If there is interaction, is it positive or negative? Is there respect for the audience? Comments are tough to analyze because sometimes people aren’t so nice in them. However, if we look closely at them with the students in our classes and help them to decipher what makes a good or bad comment, as well ask them to consider the implications of the comments that people leave, it’s possible that they will think twice as they leave their own comments in the future.

Simply asking students to consider these topics can give them insight into whether or not the videos they find online should be considered valid information. Remember, none of the criteria listed is the most important, and suspect information on only one of these topics shouldn't disqualify it from use. The process is about collecting evidence and making a judgment based on what that evidence tells us. Online video is a force that cannot be ignored. We are quickly becoming a culture that participates in the media that is created and because of that, we must also be critical consumers of that media. Shantel has long since graduated from high school and moved on, but the media landscape that students will experience is ever changing. We must be flexible and adapt to the new forms of information that will come into our lives and influence our classroom practice. In doing so we will make new connections and continually rethink what it means to be a credible source.

Bill Bass

Bill Bass is a former middle and high school English teacher who now works with teachers as a Technology Integration Specialist and an adjunct professor of educational technology in St. Louis, Missouri. He is Co-President of Educational Technology Association of Greater St. Louis, a Google Certified Teacher and a past member of the NCTE Executive Board.