I’ve told my daughter nearly every weekday for the last two years to stop watching YouTube and concentrate on her schoolwork. “But Dad,” came a curveball excuse I was not expecting, “it’s biology!”
Nearly six years ago, two brothers, who lived in different cities, made a public pledge to produce YouTube videos for each other on a weekly basis. While avoiding the intimate details of their daily lives, Hank Green and his brother, John bestselling young adult book author, chose the public forum to exhibit the often philosophical, sometimes trivial, and always hyper-stimulated contents of their minds.
Through their Vlogbrothers channel, with John contributing every Tuesday and Hank every Friday, they acquired an audience that, by Google’s count, eclipses that of many television networks. Some of their videos have amassed hundreds of millions of viewers (many, admittedly, through repeats).
John Green at
an author event.
But then they did something every programming executive in the dinosaur days of televised media would have advised against. They leveraged their rising popularity to talk about some subjects they really care about, for instance: the endocrine system, the ancient Indus Valley civilization, thecell structure of sponges, socialism, Islam, the genetics of disease, the things that come out of your body, and my personal favorite, stochasticity.
My daughter, and hundreds of thousands of fellow “Nerd Fighters” (not people who fight nerds, but nerds who fight) are sneaking spare moments in between homework problems to study science, history, and sociology. The first question on my mind isn’t so much how this happened, but that if young folks truly wanted to learn this stuff all along, why didn’t we know it sooner?
“A student can connect with us in deeper ways than one can get in a traditional classroom,” Hank Green wrote me in a recent email. “John and I share our lives and connect in ways that traditional teachers — and traditional entertainers — have not, at least in many years.”
Is there something that teachers are missing about the way modern students want to be taught that the Greens have hit upon? Or is the information they provide better than what students get from a classroom?
“I don’t think the quality of the information is higher, and ultimately I don’t think there’s any replacement for a classroom,” wrote John Green, responding to those questions in an email. He adds that while he and his brother try to make their Crash Course and SciShow channels as interactive as possible, including responding to viewers, essentially, they’re working within the confines of one or two guys in a room with a camera.
What interests me is helping to create spaces where learning is celebrated, and where the pursuit of wisdom and understanding are celebrated. I found in my own life that I became a much better student when I found myself at a school where being smart was cool. These days, I try to help foster spaces online where intellectual engagement is seen as a good thing. All that said, I still like educational institutions. I would love to go back to college and take all those classes over again.
Is there something about the electronic nature — the fact that it’s YouTube rather than second period — that makes it more interesting to young people? Hank didn’t mince words. He wrote: “Knowledge may not be comparable with intelligence, but there is a relationship between them. Teaching one without the other… makes either incomplete. Which is why John and I, in our larger body of work as well as in individual videos, mix facts with context and values.”
John wrote that the fact that it’s an online video, rather than in person, does present certain advantages. He and Hank don’t have to deal with the real-life challenges of teachers trying to interest students; people are choosing to watch the videos. “They’re not watching it in the hopes that a high school or college degree will improve their job prospects, or because their parents have ordered them to. They just want to learn.”