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Learning on YouTube

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In early September 2022, the Official YouTube Blog posted The next chapter for Learning on YouTube, announcing YouTube’s plans to interoperate better with schools via the “YouTube Player for Education.”

Many schools have avoided relying on YouTube as a video host for at least three good reasons. The first is that YouTube is frequently blocked by corporate and international firewalls, presenting a challenge to reliably delivering curricular content to off-campus students. Also, YouTube is designed as a social media platform rather than a video management system, so content cannot be updated within a video entry; if the teacher receives feedback about a video lecture that warrants a revision, a completely new video entry needs to be created and re-embedded in every instance of the course using the old version.

Finally, YouTube is a video platform embedded in a social media platform owned by Alphabet, history’s most successful advertising firm, and is thus designed to present advertisements, collect granular user-specific behavior data, and recommend potentially inappropriate videos to keep viewers engaged with the platform rather than course the video was embedded into.

The first feature announced in YouTube’s blog post addresses the third and most compelling problem listed above: an embedded YouTube Player for Education won’t show ads or recommend other videos that would distract students from the instruction. (The other new feature is in-video quizzes, which deserves—and has—a column of its own [go2sm.com/moreactive].) This capability builds on existing features used in Google Classroom, where additional GET parameters in the IFrame URL for the embedded video suppresses those distractions. Minimally, these parameters must be added (at the time of this writing):

?enablejsapi=1&rel=0&showinfo=0&modestbranding=1&embed_config=%7B%22hideInfoBar%22%3Atrue%2C%22disableRelatedVideos%22%3Atrue%7D

Adding these parameters makes the embedded YouTube player better behaved when used in a course. Most of the parameters use a transparent naming convention. The embed_config parameter is a URL-encoded json string. The meaning of rel accepts ambiguity: leaving it out presents recommendations at the end; including it makes the video reload to the beginning. EnableJsApi tells YouTube that your page intends to interact via javascript with YouTube’s IFrame API (go2sm.com/iframeapi) that uses PostMessage methods and OnMessage events to facilitate cross-domain communication between the YouTube player and the page embedding it. This allows your educational website to circumvent CORS restrictions and provide a custom user interface and control set for the video. A good example can be seen by signing up with a YouTube Player for Education partner like EdPuzzle (www.edpuzzle.com).

I haven’t seen YouTube Player for Education’s video quiz implementation except in demonstration screencaps in their blog post, but I expect that they’ll extend that IFrame API to use PostMessage for reporting quiz performance data back to the parent page to be potentially included in a grade book or to route the student on an adaptive learning path based on their quiz answers. The alternative to using PostMessage for that—the usual technique adopted—would be for the YouTube Player for Education IFrame to be created via LTI launch instead of a vanilla IFrame embed. The PostMessage/OnMessage solution is simpler and more flexible for both YouTube and the platform embedding it in this use case.

YouTube Player for Education is something to keep an eye on as it matures in 2023. I don’t expect it to be a particularly disruptive technology, but it will prove a welcome way for teachers who are exceptionally on camera to augment their teaching salaries. While the videos embedded in their courses won’t have ads on them, the same videos available to the public on YouTube will. School administrators would be wise to consider the consequences of this for both expanding and protecting their school’s reputation and brand to develop fair and sensible guidance that balances those priorities with academic freedom and professional development.

While YouTube has the hood up on Video Player for Education, it’s high time they roll in the long-promised Multi-audio tracks and descriptive audio feeds feature demonstrated in the Story Trailer to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to elegantly allow audio description of YouTube content for blind students. While a social media platform may not be ideal for hosting curricular content in an otherwise secure course, it serves well for communicating with a school’s para-scholastic community. Requiring community members who are blind to follow a link in the description to the video’s audio described version sends the unintended message that they are second-class citizens of the school community.

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