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 (13) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Krystal Burr's picture

Instructors have to be carful using Youtube as an educational tool, because if students have access to inappropriate videos on the website the instructor could be held responable during school hours. To avoid copyright issues instructors should try to up load videos from the orginal website, and if the video is not avaible they should try searching for the vidoe through google.

EarnestR's picture

Teachers should lead by example and not go against the TOS. YouTube can be used in the educational setting and there should be a way to block out inappropriate content. I am not sure if they do this or not, but maybe they can alert YouTube users when a video is going to be removed.

Jenny Hileman's picture

It is possible for school networks to filter the content that is accessible to teachers and students alike through YouTube. People in the network can sign on as either a student or a teacher, or even an administrator, and only be able to search through appropriate content. I think YouTube is an excellent and invaluable resource in education, and limiting the use of any new modern technology in the classroom is only done to the detriment of the student.

fday's picture

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Dustin Stern's picture

Another practice that is becoming more and more common in higher education is to create your own video library using actual video assessments of students interacting in a real world or simulated session. This is a technology enabled practice implementing a local secure youtube using lecture capture or purpose built solutions like echo360 or are used.

shuidiaosha's picture

I often use Allavsoft to Download SchoolTube Video to MP4, WMV, AVI, FLV, MOV, etc,

glenchung's picture

I teach a one-unit online course for a small college, and I use video content heavily to do the teaching. I record myself doing examples of the assigned work, as a screencast, and I upload that to YouTube. However, a recurring problem is that most of my students do not watch my videos. They attempt to plow through the exercises uninformed, and they do not post or email questions to me online. This represents the majority of my students, the last term the class was offered. Is there a way for me to incentivize students to actually watch the videos which I meticulously create, or to get students to ask me the questions which I know they must have in their minds?

Gary R Lennox's picture

Valuable information. Thanks for the sharing. As for download YouTube videos, I'd also recommend Acethinker Video Downloader ( ) which I have used for many years. It is a free online tool that lets you download video right from the browser. Share it here as an alternative method.

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