What Do Students Learn about Writing from YouTube?

Jack Dougherty's picture

Let's be clear about one thing: I'm NOT proposing to replace in-person writing instruction with automated YouTube videos. Don't put me in that MOOC camp. But I do wonder about better ways to educate our students. How do they learn about the writing process from resources outside of our classrooms? When searching for guidance with drafting and revising college-level essays, do they turn to YouTube videos? I occasionally Google my way to this enormously popular site when I need help with tasks such as installing a car stereo or following a sequence of steps for new software. YouTube has successfully taught me on many several occasions when textual instructions failed. As an educator, I'm curious to know what students discover about the writing process from web-based multimedia. Furthermore, what can readers of MediaCommons teach me, a non-specialist in this field, about how to interpret these intriguing examples of video culture?

Taking on the role of an undergraduate who's pressed for time, I gave myself only twenty minutes to search for YouTube videos with keywords such as "college writing" and "revising essay." Since popularity mattered more than quality for this exercise, I tended to gravitate toward results with higher numbers of views. Not surprisingly, much of the pedagogy on YouTube did not impress me. One-way video instruction lends itself to "talking heads" doing voice overs with PowerPoint cue cards that superficially advise us to "read the pages slowly" when revising and ask yourself, "does it flow well?", as suggested in "How to Write a College Paper" by ExpertVillage (2008). I quickly moved on to find something more engaging.

A small handful of YouTube instructors drew my attention by sharing more substantive ideas and visually illustrating their writing process. In "How to Write an Effective Essay," JamesESL (2011) sketched out different ways to craft an introduction on a whiteboard. The low-tech production had some advantages: the "big picture" was always in view, and we watched him construct his ideas and build the process in front of us, rather than relying on pre-fabricated presentation slides.  I could have watched more of his 20-minute video (as did many of his 265,320 other viewers, I suspect) but in the interest of exploration, I moved on. 

One of the more pedagogically innovative examples I saw was "Essay Rough Draft - Highlighter Activity" by ChristalaLaFay (2012). Her video displayed a screencast of a sample essay in her word processor, as she walked the viewer through a "reverse outline" exercise to identify the underlying structure within the text, and offer recommendations for how it could be improved. (Check it out. Even if it's not a perfect, she definitely deserves more than 339 views.)

While YouTube should not replace in-person writing instruction, there are valuable ways it could supplement it. The writing process baffles many of my students, and it certainly baffled me during my first two undergraduate years, because this form of social communication typically was created in extreme isolation. That's what it felt like to me as a lonely writer, who only occasionally saw the prose of my classmates, and never witnessed how it was constructed. As a college instructor who spends considerable time teaching my students to improve their writing (but am not an official writing instructor), I'm looking for ways to pull back the curtain too often hides the writing process from my students. Perhaps web-based video is one way to do that. I'm intrigued by faculty in the STEM fields who create supplementary videos for their students on how to work through problems, often filmed in front of a whiteboard or as a computer screencast, as my Trinity colleague Mary Sandoval does for her Calculus II course. While I'm skeptical of MOOCs, sometimes I see glimpses of multimedia resources that could help students learn, especially if they can play them over again as needed. Perhaps those of us in the humanities have something to learn here. Might our students who need additional support on writing skills benefit from carefully crafted, hands-on visualizations that illustrate how we think about the authoring and revising process?

How do MediaCommons readers interpret these and other instructional videos on the web? And do you encourage your students to learn about writing from YouTube? Share your thoughts here and also on our book-in-progress, Web Writing: Why & How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning.