Curriculum

Why Generation Z Learners Prefer YouTube Lessons Over Printed Books

By Lauraine Genota — September 11, 2018 6 min read
Many students now turn to YouTube before books to grasp difficult concepts in math and science or to investigate topics for English and history classes.
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Fifteen-year-old Jaimie Moreano is on YouTube all the time.

She can learn how to do anything she wants using the video-sharing platform. She uses it to watch hair and makeup tutorials and get-ready-with-me videos to see what’s cool to wear.

But makeup tutorials aren’t the only videos she watches on the popular video platform.

“When I’m doing my homework, I’ll look up how to solve a problem on YouTube,” said Moreano, a sophomore at Locust Valley High School outside New York City. “I like it because it’s really easy to follow. I can pause it, or I can rewind it if I have a question.”

She’s part of a majority of Generation Z kids who have a higher preference for learning from YouTube and videos, compared with printed books. That shifting preference is driving curricula and technological changes in some school districts, but also raising questions and concerns about the downsides of relying too much on video.

In a survey released last month of people ages 14 to 23—the so-called Generation Z group—YouTube ranked the highest as a preferred learning tool. Fifty-nine percent picked YouTube as a learning preference, 57 percent chose in-person group activities, 47 percent picked learning apps or games, and 47 percent chose printed books. The study—conducted by a global market research firm, The Harris Poll, on behalf of education company Pearson—examines the differences between Generation Z and Millennials—defined as ages 24-40—when it comes to their outlooks, values, and experiences in education and the use of technology.

The Generation Z age group has a “specific brand relationship” with YouTube, said Peter Broad, the director of global research and insights for the education company. “When younger learners are looking for answers, they’re going to the most straightforward, familiar force, and for them that’s YouTube.”

The Google-owned platform is “full of explainers and tutorials” and content that is “short and easily digestible,” he added.

‘Grasp the Concept’

Those Generation Z preferences are driving significant changes in some school districts.

In the Mineola school district outside New York City, Superintendent Michael Nagler has been encouraging teachers to use more video in the classroom. The district has a YouTube channel for educators and students, with videos covering topics from growth mindset to science and math lessons. Videos complement the regular curricula and give students real-life connections about why they’re learning something, Nagler said.

“If all the facts and figures are available on the internet, then students don’t need to sit and listen to you,” Nagler said. “But what’s the bigger connection? Videos can give them that bigger connection, engaging them in the content and lesson itself.”

Despite his enthusiasm for the power of video learning, Nagler emphasizes that teachers still need to be the ones guiding students through the content.

The members of Generation Z seem to agree. According to the Pearson study, 78 percent of respondents said that teachers are “very important to learning and development.”

For younger learners who have grown up with technology, it’s all about efficiency and using any resource they can get their hands on easily, Broad said.

“They want to learn as quickly as possible,” he said. “Their assumption is that [the answers they need] will be available to them.”

YouTube is a good source when Moreano has a test coming up, she said. She just types “crash course” on whatever subject the test is on and she’ll find YouTube videos of “people simplifying everything,” helping her to really “grasp the concept.”

Privacy and Content Concerns

Educators and researchers alike agree that young people’s tendency to gravitate toward YouTube has to do with the fact that they’ve grown up with this technology and expect it to always be available to them. The website launched in 2005, around the same time the Generation Z age group was growing up.

Andrew Biggs, a social studies teacher at New Technology High School in Napa, Calif., said that students like YouTube because “it’s on-demand content.”

For students, the strength of video is that you can play and pause it “as many times as you want, without having to feel like you’re inconveniencing someone,” Biggs said. It also makes sense to use it for learning because “a lot of students already use YouTube recreationally.”

The video-sharing website is widely popular among kids and young adults.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 85 percent of U.S. teenagers use YouTube, and 32 percent say they use the video-sharing platform more often than other social media platforms. Forty-seven percent spend three or more hours a day on YouTube, according to the Pearson study.

YouTube, however, has recently been accused of targeting children with advertisements and violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, Education Week reported in April. More than 20 consumer advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that YouTube has been gathering data of children to target advertisements.

It has also been criticized for recommending inappropriate content to children, said Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, one of the advocacy groups that filed a complaint with the FTC. YouTube recommends videos that contain “extremist viewpoints, conspiracy theories, violent and adult content,” he said.

The platform is also “designed to keep you watching one video after another, exposing kids to risks,” Golin said. It’s something educators should think about before sending students to YouTube for educational purposes, he added.

Students also have concerns.

Eva Clark-Dupuy, a junior at New Technology High School, said she uses YouTube as a learning tool because it’s more accessible to her.

“It’s a free app,” she said. “It’s easy to look at. You get millions of results when you search something.”

But the downside of YouTube being a “free-for-all space,” she said, is that anyone can upload a low-quality or misleading video, and the videos could contain inappropriate content.

Other students are concerned that the video-sharing platform is becoming more commercialized.

“Even the YouTubers themselves are advertising products, and you don’t know whether to believe them or if they’re just getting paid to say that,” said Ben Danialian, a senior at Mineola High.

The Role of Visual Learning

The preference for YouTube and videos signals a shift in learning styles, Pearson’s director of global research and insights said. The role of video and visual learning is “essential in rising learners and the generation to come,” Broad said. Pearson has also found that there is growing interest in other video-based learning platforms like Khan Academy.

Some teens are turning to YouTube because they find that it’s easier to understand something when they watch someone explain it visually. It also helps that they can pause and rewind a video if they don’t understand it right away.

Watching a video can be more helpful than having someone lecture at her, Clark-Dupuy said.

“Sometimes learning from a textbook doesn’t help me,” she said. “Sometimes it’s much easier to watch a video on a topic. If I have a visual, it’s easier to grasp.”

The visual aspect of videos isn’t the only reason younger learners are turning to YouTube. They also find the videos more relatable than books.

Moreano said that YouTube is “almost more personal than reading a book, because you see them and what they’re actually doing, and not just what they’re writing.”

She also gets to follow people her age, which makes the video-sharing platform better than a book, she said, because “books feel old to me.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2018 edition of Education Week as Why ‘Generation Z’ Learners Prefer YouTube Lessons


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