January 2013
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YOUTUBE in New and Unusual Ways
Rus Wilson & Randall Davis, University of Utah, USA


Russell Wilson

Randall Davis

New Angles on YouTube Use in the Classroom

The vast popularity of YouTube has inevitably found its way into the ESL classroom. This can be a great benefit, as long as pedagogical considerations are not overshadowed by the mere presence of a video. In fact, YouTube can be utilized in less known ways that can be of benefit for the student. This article discusses three tools that can be used to maximize YouTube for instructional purposes: creating video annotations, controlling the playback speed of the video, and displaying videos with minimal distractions.

YouTube Annotations

Many students are accustomed to adventure games that allow for seemingly infinite choices. With YouTube, it is possible to capitalize on this to construct a branching chain of videos. The student’s experience depends entirely upon his or her choices. At the conclusion of each video, the student is given two or more clickable choices. One pedagogical application would be a listening comprehension practice. Students listen to a conversation between characters in the first video and then click a choice that depends upon their understanding of the conversation. Students who understand and answer correctly are presented with the choice to continue to additional videos that are not otherwise viewable, while students who answer incorrectly are given the chance to choose again and/or watch the video another time. Although this is an informal task, it is essentially an adaptive listening comprehension exercise. Dozens, or even hundreds, of experiences are possible once the instructor has chained the videos together.

The YouTube feature that makes this possible is Annotations. You must have a YouTube account to add annotations to a video. It may be a video that you upload yourself or a video in the Creative Commons domain that you can edit and release. First, select “Video Manager” from the taskbar, and then select a video. Above the video, an Annotations button appears. Click it, and an “Add annotation” button appears to the right. There are several types of annotation, not all of which will support links. The following support hyperlinks: Speech bubble, Note, Spotlight, and Label. Add the text you want in the text box, and then click the “Link” button. A box appears, into which you simply paste the link to the next YouTube video in the chain. Not only can you precisely control when the annotations appear, you can go back and edit, remove, or add annotations at any time.

With the Annotations feature, you can make the chain as simple or as complex as you like. You may require students to choose a correct answer from a number of available choices, make an adaptive activity, or simply link consecutive videos in the order you would like the students to watch them. The possibilities are potentially endless. See a simple example of using the annotations feature in this way here: Sample YouTube.

In these days of smartphones and tablets, one caveat to keep in mind is that YouTube’s annotation feature does not work dependably, if at all, on mobile devices that do not support Flash Player.

Controlling Playback Speed

One of the challenges facing teachers is limitations in controlling the playback speed of the videos. Without such control, much of YouTube content is simply beyond the linguistic reach of students learning English, rendering YouTube somewhat limited in terms of the audio track. (Of course, you can always turn down the audio and do silent viewing for language practice.)

This is where the VLC Media Player can become a really powerful, and portable, tool for language teachers. Basically, the VLC Media Player is a free cross-platform multimedia player that can handle multiple media formats, including MPEG, WMA, MP4, RealMedia, and WAV, to mention a few. Furthermore, it can handle a variety of streaming media protocols and DVDs. It runs on Windows, Mac OS, Unix, and Linux platforms, and it is completely free without any ads.

One of the best features is that there is a portable apps version that you can load onto a thumb drive, and thus you can play streaming media files in locations where you do not have administrative permission or rights to download the VLC player or other applications to computers at work or school. It is in this way that I will discuss how to use the VLC player to slow down the video playback of YouTube videos. Before anything else, be sure to download and install the most recent version of the VLC player from Portable Apps for the portable version of the application.

First of all, find the specific YouTube video and its URL you want to play. Next, in the VLC player, select “Open Network Stream” from the “Media” menu, or use the Control + N sequence. Then, enter the YouTube video URL where it says, “Please enter a network URL.” Click the “Play” button in the same window. At that point, the video will shortly open in the VLC player. Make sure the Status Bar (the very bottom section of the application window) is selected in “View” menu, for this is where the speed slider is located. You can adjust the speed from .25 to 4.0 times normal speed, which provides great audio with very minimal tone distortion.

All this said, be aware that there can be times when your local network settings at work or school may not permit the streaming of YouTube videos.

Viewing Videos With Fewer Distractions

Another important task for teachers is to provide a safe and friendly viewing experience for students without the numerous unrelated links, comments, and graphics appearing right next to the video you have selected to play. You never know what video links might appear that could be distracting or offensive to your audience. With this in mind, services such as SafeshareTV provide a simple option for teachers to show video to students in class or to create a link that can be emailed to students.

Basically, you paste a YouTube video link into the “Generate Safe Link” field on the SafeShare website, and it creates a unique SafeShare link that, when clicked, shows the YouTube video in its own browser window, less all of the normal YouTube content and links around it. Furthermore, the generated link never expires, so you can save this information for use in your course curriculum. Having such an option and sharing this information with school administrators might allow them to assess or reassess the terms of use YouTube content in cases where it is now prohibited.

Keep in mind that SafeShare does not act as a filter to block objectionable sites or even pre-roll ads that often accompany YouTube videos. It also does not prevent students from accessing YouTube directly. It simple removes the superfluous distractions surrounding YouTube videos when you access that site directly.


Rus Wilson and Randall Davis teach at the English Language Institute at the University of Utah.

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