When University of California, Davis student Anthony Nguyen wants to spelunk a little more deeply into the day's geology lesson, he knows help is just a click away.
All the college senior has to do is visit YouTube.com, a file-sharing Web site typically known more for recorded stunts and home-video confessionals than for educational wisdom. This is where Davis geology professor Dawn Sumner regularly posts summaries of her in-class lectures, as well as instructional videos she thinks will help students like Nguyen make the grade.
"By looking at the video clips, I'm reminded of what she spoke about in class," Nguyen said in an e-mail interview. "It reinforces the material into my memory."
Sumner isn't alone in her efforts to reach students through YouTube. For thousands of teachers, YouTube.com is more than a modern day video store -- it's a chance to redefine traditional education by engaging students in a format more tailored to the Modern Age.
Meant for viewers ages 13 and up, YouTube had 67.5 million unique visitors nationwide in the month of January alone, according to a recent report by Neilsen NetRatings, and was the sixth most visited site on the Web.
Education is a component of the site that continues to grow, said a spokeswoman for YouTube. The site is home to a number of student projects, instructional videos and professional development clips. In addition to user-posted material, the site has partnerships with several colleges and universities, from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Southern California system to Vanderbilt and Northwestern universities, which operate channels with full-length lectures and interactive Web sites for the schools.
YouTube.com's preeminence has given rise to similar file-sharing sites, specifically designed for students and teachers, which claim to be safer for younger audiences than their predecessor.
Web sites like TeacherTube.com let educators post instructional videos and share thoughts and lesson plans with colleagues across the globe in a format similar to YouTube. Other Web communities -- HotChalk.com is one dedicated to K-12 education -- let teachers correspond with students and teachers, keep track of coursework and create class Web sites. Some let students e-mail assignments to their teachers from off-campus locations and let parents log in to check on grades and download extra-curricular activities.
Edward Fields, founder and CEO of HotChalk.com, calls his site a community for teachers with an affinity for technology and reaching out to tech-savvy students.
"Teachers are hungry for new types of teaching," Fields said.
And the numbers bear that out. With a monthly Web traffic of some 7.1 million unique viewers, HotChalk features more than 375,000 registered educators.
One of those is Martin Casas, who teaches advanced placement history and freshman geography classes at East Lake High School in San Diego. For the past two years, Casas has helped his students prepare for rigorous college placement tests by incorporating selected educational video clips into the regular class curriculum.
Students are typically asked to view two clips and answer questions based on a synthesis of both. It helps them hone critical thinking and writing skills, Casas said, while offering them an exciting, new way to learn standards-based materials.
"They're responding to something more dynamic when they see a video clip," he added. "They're more involved and excited with the material."
Fields attributes this to students' familiarity with the Internet. Technology is such an integral part of their daily lives; they seek similar stimulation in the classroom.
Using video clips or media that let students learn coursework, but also explore beyond the assignment, speaks to them on their own level, he added.
"It's really taking the technology kids already have access to and putting it into their hands at school," Field said.
Last year, Florida International University Professor David Wernick was trying to come up with new ways to keep his 300-student management class sharp and ready to learn skills that would help students be competitive in the job market upon graduation.
Typically, the class featured regular group debates about business trends, ethics and historical controversies. Students listened to opponents' opening arguments and had mere moments to craft a rebuttal.
A new way of teaching the same subject matter, Wernick decided, would be to have the teams film introductions and opening arguments and post them on YouTube for their opponents to watch. The opponents would then have time to craft a thought-out response before class met the next day.
The results were a hit with students like Lisa Marie Young, an FIU sophomore majoring in human resource management. Her team crafted a creative, digitally edited introduction video and got imaginative in their opening argument videos, using mock interviews and news broadcasts to lay out the information.
"It was really taking a project that was supposed to be debate, which was supposed to be seen as serious, and then having fun with it and being creative with it," Young said in a student-produced video on Wernick's pilot project. "It was a challenge; I thought it was interesting."
Changing the format of the assignment lets the class dig deeper into the nuance of the debates, while learning skills that will make them marketable job candidates, Wernick said.
"It's a new world, and technology is evolving so quickly," he said. "The students have to be conversant with different media."
Other professors, like UC Davis' Sumner, keep video lessons optional, rather than a part of the required coursework. In Sumner's class, students like Nguyen can look up video recordings on YouTube to help them study for exams or if they're looking to better understand complicated material.
This informal use of file sharing lets Sumner's students access extra help but also allows her to be part of a larger discussion on topics related to geology and extend her expertise to students beyond the UC Davis campus, including K-12 students.
"Outreach is really one of the benefits of YouTube," Sumner said. "College classes and university-produced videos can provide a source of information that's reliable and has the quality guarantee to younger students and their teachers."
Becoming more comfortable with digital media is a plus not only for students hoping to compete in a global marketplace, but also teachers looking to expand their own roles as educators and participants in the Information Age, according to Jason Smith, founder of TeacherTube.com and superintendent of Melissa Independent School District in Texas.
Similar to YouTube, TeacherTube is a video file-sharing site where educators are encouraged to share lesson plans, tips and other instruction-based films. The most useful, intriguing or -- yes -- entertaining clips are chosen by user votes to be featured prominently on the page.
Professionals can build a digital portfolio to share with peers across the world. As they do this, the lessons they teach reach a wider audience, including areas that may not have equal access to updated content and materials, and foster a sense of community among those in education.
Sharing information across such a vast expanse could someday change the role of teachers in classrooms of the future, Smith said. Instead of being definitive experts and the last word on a given subject, educators might find themselves in a new supportive role.
"The teacher of the future (will get students) access to the brightest teachers, who will teach to the needs of that student," Smith added.
Some in the industry may be reluctant to see teachers' roles change or introduce a new way of learning into the classroom, Smith said, though each new generation of teachers is becoming more amenable to finding and learning new ways of reaching students, many of whom have grown up with access to computers, cell phones, podcasts and YouTube.
While the use of file-sharing sites and technological enhancements to the traditional curriculum is widespread among K-12 teachers and school sites, much of it is done by teachers on their own time, said Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology, a nonprofit media research organization in New York.
A teacher's willingness is not the only factor for getting a classroom to operate on the cutting edge of technology: Access to current hardware and software as well as administrative visions will set the technology scene at a school or district. Some teachers may not have a computer in the classroom or means of accessing technology-enhanced curriculums, Pasnik added, and an instant infusion of computer-based learning may not necessarily be the best move for a class to make.
"It can be a valuable tool, but it's not a panacea," Pasnik said of a multimedia influence. "It depends on how it's being used and to what end."
The use of media in the classroom can help students engage in an exploration-based approach to learning, where questions are encouraged over rote memorization of theories and rules. Still, the proper infrastructure has to be in place to ensure best practice, according to Pasnik.
While video sharing sites like YouTube have made an impact on college-level classes like Nguyen's, they must be given a chance with the younger set if they are to have an impact on the education system.
Several revered academic institutions have made agreements with YouTube that allow them to set up channels, or individualized sites run by the schools on YouTube.com, that include video clips made by faculty, staff and students as well as general information for the school.
Some of those include the following:
Another take on video sharing in schools comes from SchoolTube.com, a site where student-created content is approved by registered teachers.
Recently endorsed by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, SchoolTube promotes safe media sharing for schools across the country. While there are multiple video categories, the category devoted to elementary school-level learning sets this site apart from other, more higher education-geared resources.
With video of school plays and spelling bees, SchoolTube asserts that this platform will allow parents at work or home to enter the classroom when they are unable to attend in person.
From within the mass of videos available on YouTube, teachers can jump directly to channels they know are reliable and fit for classroom use.
National Public Radio has recently set up its own channel on YouTube, www.youtube.com/npr, and its first video, "Little Giants: Pandas Make You Smile," of pandas at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China, could bring welcome smiles to social studies or science classes.
PBS has its own channel as well, www.youtube.com/PBS, with education-worthy videos on the car of the future, penguins of the Antarctic, and gorillas, among others.
The National Wildlife Federation is among the more established YouTube channels with about 450 subscribers (as of April 2008) and many videos to choose from. Check it out at www.youtube.com/NationalWildlife.
*This story is from Converge magazine's Spring 2008 issue.