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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Use Online Video in Your Classroom

How teachers can bring the best of YouTube and other online video services to their students.
By Jennifer Hillner
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Credit: Hugh D'Andrade

It's one thing to talk about Mount St. Helens erupting in science class. It's another thing altogether to watch a video of the mountain's summit exploding into dust. Teachers all across the country are finding that judiciously chosen videos help students engage more deeply with the subject matter, and recall the information they've learned longer.

"A lot of students these days expect information to be presented in a flashy, entertaining way, so videos can help draw them in," says Larry Sanger, executive director of WatchKnowLearn, a site that collects education-related videos. High school student Patrick Greaney still remembers a photosynthesis video he watched in class at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, that featured a catchy tune. "The song stuck in my head and made me remember the process better," he recalls.

Your YouTube Primer

Though YouTube is blocked in many classrooms because of inappropriate materials on the site, there are many valuable videos that do further learning. The site lists an ever-growing collection of excellent educational content, everything from President Obama's weekly addresses to algebraic demonstrations.

In fact, in late 2011, YouTube for Schools was introduced, an opt-in program that allows schools to access thousands of educational videos from vetted YouTube channels like PBS, TED, and Khan Academy in a safe and controlled environment; the teachers and admins choose what videos are available to their students.

Short of joining the YouTube for Schools program, here are a other few ways to separate the wheat from the chaff:

  • Limit your searches to respected sources. Most established newspapers, museums, libraries, radio stations, and institutions have specific channels on YouTube where they collect their content. Just search by the name of the outlet on YouTube (say, the Teaching Channel), and that organization's channel will pop up. From there, you can search exclusively within the Teaching Channel's content.
  • Check out the teachers channel on YouTube. It starts with a ten-step tutorial on how to use YouTube in your classroom, with many more tips available if you join the YouTube Teachers Community and sign up for the e-newsletter. Teachers and students can upload videos here or create playlists from those already available, which range from Khan Academy’s explanation of the Cuban Missile Crisis to a rap about the Krebs cycle.
  • Try the YouTube education channel. It allows users to search within it for videos on a wide range of academic subjects. Most of the content is aimed at university-level students, but may be accessible for younger ones, too.

When choosing clips for the classroom, keep them short. This gives you time to discuss what you've just shown and its significance to the larger lesson. Once you've identified a video, there are several ways to bring it to the classroom.

First, register with YouTube. Set up a video playlist or a collection of favorites, then click them to stream the videos from a laptop. Just remember that YouTube videos are often removed without notice, so the clip you watched at home last night may not be there the next morning. Also, your school or school district might block access to the site.

Many people are tempted to download videos from YouTube to show them in classrooms where YouTube is blocked. According to YouTube's terms of use, you're not supposed to download unless you see a download link, in order to protect video creators’ rights, so you may not want to take this route.

The good news is that YouTube now offers Creative Commons-licensed videos, which are automatically safe to use. You can even modify or edit them into your own videos using the YouTube Video Editor. Enter specific keywords into YouTube’s main search bar as you normally would (“biology lectures,” for instance), then click on the “Filter & Explore” tab to the far left. In the middle of the drop-down list are the words “creative commons.” Click here and all the videos that appear under your search term will be Creative-Commons licensed.

If the content you’re interested in doesn’t come with a Creative Commons tag, it helps to know that the fair use clause in the Copyright Law of the United States allows the use of works without permission for teaching. Still, the user must adhere to some key regulations that can be vague and confusing.

One thing is clear, though: Any material first published after 1978 is copyright protected. You can find the U.S. Copyright Office's educational-use guidelines (PDF) in Circular 21. The University System of Georgia links to a fair use checklist; you can also email the video's maker for permission.

YouTube doesn't typically offer a way to download and save most videos directly. But if you have permission and would like to download from YouTube, there are a variety of ways the resourceful user can download videos:

  • If you use Firefox, you can use the free DownloadHelper extension, which makes most videos downloadable and convertible to several formats.
  • Add the word save to the URL before youtube. The URL will load with a SaveYouTube toolbar that lets you download the file.
  • Many Web sites will allow you to download videos, including Zamzar, YouTube Robot, and KeepVid.
  • Convert the video to your playback format of choice (mp4, FLV, HD, AVI, MPEG, 3GP, iPhone, PSP, mp3, GIF) and store it on your laptop or PDA, which lets you access it at any time, even if it's removed from the site.

Other Educational Video Websites

Some choose to skip YouTube entirely and go to teacher-specific online video sites, of which there are many. SchoolTube is a moderated video-sharing website just for schools. TeacherTube and WatchKnowLearn aggregate thousands of videos from educators, YouTube, and the rest of the Web. In essence, they are clearinghouses of educational videos that cover most school subjects, categorized by subject and education level. WatchKnowLearn has a review panel of educators and educational video experts that vet videos from first-time submitters before posting. The Teaching Channel bills itself as "a video showcase of inspiring and effective teaching practices," and publishes great original videos with tips and lesson plans, searchable by subject, grade level, and topic. SnagLearning is the educational branch of SnagFilms, and offers hundreds of high-quality documentary films to be used as educational tools.

Whatever the source, in the end, it's worth the effort. Great content is just a few clicks away.

Jennifer Hillner is a freelance writer in New Hampshire who specializes in technology.
Last updated: 02/22/2012 by Sara Bernard and Amy Erin Borovoy.

Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

James Gates's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If schools would use a filter that provided different access according to login, then all this would be unnecessary. A teacher would have access to youtube while a student would not.

Brians' point (below) is right on the mark!

Brian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As stated in YT's TOS, you can't use anything other than the download link to get the videos from YT. Doesn't matter if YT is enforcing that or not. And they are enforcing that and have asked companies/people to stop providing tools to extract the vids. The problem is there are thousands of them...and they all should not be used. Downloading should not be used, by educators or students, under any circumstane. If you start to teach students that it's ok to do whatever you want and not follow rules, chaos ensues. You may not care, and think you have a "right" to grab the videos, but you do not.

There's never a cop in my does that give me the right to run all the stop signs on my way home?

YT is a valuable part of education right now. And, they make it so you can embed the videos into almost any other web site. Schools can allow filters to open up so you can't get to the YT site, but can still watch the videos embedded on other sites (blogs, wikis, etc.).

Myra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When using a Mary Pope Osborne YouTube interview on my wiki for my elementary students, I noticed that when the video finished playing there are always other suggested You Tube videos to watch. Is it possible to not have those other choices available? I'm worried that my young students may click on a suggested video that would take them to Ozzie Osborne or any other inappropriate material. I just want my students to see the video I have selected and not be tempted with other video suggestions.


Debra Bridgman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This seems like a great resource for teachers of students with special needs, too.

Brian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

@Myra: When you grab the embed code from next to the YT video, click the Options/Customize button (the little gear icon). Uncheck the box to "Include related videos." Then, copy the line of embed code and paste it into the HTML view on the wiki page. Otherwise, if you are using something like PBworks where they have a way, inside the wiki tools, to add the YT video, then I don't think you can easily remove the related videos.

Joseph Newton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Because educators do not personally profit by the download. Not only that, but one study I read indicates that educational downloads of this type exponentially increase regular traffic to the videos, as the students often go on to tell friends and family about the videos. Any video author that complains about an educator that spreads the word about his video is an idiot.

Joseph Newton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Educators do not personally profit from the downloads. In fact, the video authors do. One study I read indicates that downloads by educators exponentially increase regular traffic to videos, as students often go on to tell friends and family about the videos. Any video author that complains about educators spreading the word about his video is an idiot.

Brian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The study you read does not equate to what is actually happening (link to he study here please for all to read.) Students may go on to tell family and friends about the video, but almost all YT users are not profiting from people watching their videos. As a video author, I will complain that you used a tool to extract MY video from MY YouTube account to use for whatever purpose you want. YT makes the embed code available so you can put the vid anywhere you want (including into a PPT slide). If I want you to be able to download it I WILL TURN ON THE DOWNLOAD option in the YT page.

As clearly stated in YT's TOS, you cannot use any third party tools or sites to extract the videos. Additionally, YT cannot track which videos are being extracted, nor by whom and via what tool/site. Point is, YT as a service says you should not be doing it and as an educator you should not be downloading videos. Why is this so hard for educators to grasp? This is not Fair Use or teach Act. stuff. In fact, the Teach Act even says the material must be obtained in a legal manner according to the terms of the site.

If the sign in the store window reads, " no shirt - no shoes - no service" you must abide by those terms, even if you can go shirtless and shoeless everywhere else in the world.

Tony's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Filtering is NOT the answer. Education is the answer. You can't shield students from everything you don't want them to see/hear/do. They have access, no matter what you try to do. They have it on their phones, they have it at home, they have it everywhere that you have no control over. So why bother? It reminds me of the recent blog post suggesting we should also ban pencils, because they can be used to poke an eye out, write profanity, cheat, etc. DO NOT BAN, DO NOT FILTER ----- EDUCATE ABOUT PROPER USE.

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