Professor Studies Public Education’s YouTube Portrayal

Study of video-sharing site finds negative depiction of public education

Burhanettin Keskin, an associate professor of early childhood education at the University of Mississippi, recently published a paper that examined how public education is portrayed on YouTube. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – YouTube is the second most popular website in the world, nestled right behind Google and ahead of sites such as Facebook, Baidu (a Chinese language internet search engine) and Wikipedia.

The video-sharing site states it has more than a billion users worldwide – almost one-third of all people on the internet – and every day those users watch a billion hours of video.

But what exactly is all that video watching telling viewers about the world, specifically when it comes to public education? That’s a topic recently explored by Burhanettin Keskin, a University of Mississippi associate professor of early childhood education. The result is his paper, “What Do YouTube Videos Say About Public Education?” which was published as an Editor’s Choice article in SAGE, a leading independent, academic and professional publisher of innovative, high-quality content.

Keskin’s study shows that the content of selected, English-language YouTube videos examined portray public education in a mostly negative light.

“As an educator, I’m worried about the future of public education and how it is portrayed in media,” he said. “Oftentimes I see blunt attacks on public education. I will be the first to say that public education is not perfect. I will say that, but I think it is something we need to protect.”

For his study, Keskin typed the term “public education” into the YouTube search bar and analyzed the top 60 search results provided by the site. (YouTube uses a non-disclosed algorithm to display its user-generated content.)

Keskin and a graduate student then independently coded the videos (59 were evaluated because one video repeated itself in the search results) as portraying public education as negative, neutral or positive. The videos were coded on the thumbnail cover image, title and content, which involved Keskin watching enough YouTube videos to give him “dreams at night of YouTube.”

When Keskin and the graduate student disagreed on nine videos, an opinion from a third coder – a professor from another university – was obtained.

The study showed that 67.8 percent of the selected videos’ content portrayed public education negatively, 22 percent of the cover images portrayed public education negatively (64.4 percent were found neutral) and 45.8 percent of the titles were negative (44.1 percent were neutral).

“I was troubled by the findings of Dr. Keskin’s research,” said Susan McClelland, UM chair of teacher education. “Public perception is important to any career as it often reflects the level of respect and value the public places on that career.

“Today, public education is under an increasing amount of public scrutiny, which places educational systems in a position to create effective school public relations campaigns. … I do believe positive perceptions begin at the local level, and teachers and administrators must learn to be action-oriented in sharing positive information about themselves, the successes of all children and the impact education is having on their communities – a role perhaps we have not been comfortable doing.”

Some of the titles from Keskin’s May 31, 2016, search (8.2 million videos were found) were bluntly, if not outrageously negative, of public education, with titles such as “Public ‘Education’ Has Become Indoctrination and Distraction” and “Common Core: UN Agenda 21, Communitarianism & The Public Education Plan to Destroy America.”

While some videos only had a few thousand views, others had been viewed more than a million times.

“Perception in recent years regarding public education is down,” said David Rock, dean of the School of Education. “Unfortunately, negative stories fuel strong sentiment, especially on social media and therefore seem to be heard like a roar. This fire can spread into an ugly fight at times on social media.

“Positive successes are shared but seem to be heard like a normal, friendly conversation. We seem to be more likely to share positive news in a friendly manner.”

With many educators using YouTube in their classrooms, Keskin points out that the danger is that both reputable and impartial sources, and untrustworthy and biased sources share the same platform with YouTube. Also, anyone can upload videos to YouTube, and some of the unreliable videos are professionally rendered, which is confusing to children and teens, who are a large YouTube audience.

A May survey from the Pew Research Center on teens, social media and technology reports that 85 percent of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 say they use YouTube, more than Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Since YouTube is a teaching tool in today’s classrooms, young children might think all YouTube videos are credible, especially subjective material placed at the top of search results.

“Pretty much anyone can post anything,” said Keskin, who joined the UM faculty in 2013. “Some academics, some doctors, some professionals can post it. So can someone who has some really bad intentions. They can just post it and bend truths.

“The danger is (YouTube) is a mixture of things. For a young mind, it might be really hard to distinguish if this is reputable, especially if you are not very good with media.”

Even after viewing the results of his research, though, Keskin, who has a personal YouTube cooking channel called KeskinCookin, said YouTube can be a valuable teaching tool. Others agree.

“I certainly believe YouTube videos are an effective tool for teaching,” said McClelland, who also serves as an associate professor of leadership and counselor education. “You can learn to do just about anything by watching a YouTube video – from tying a bow tie to changing a tire to improving your writing skills, YouTube has videos on how to be successful.

“YouTube is a powerful source of information – all the more reason we need images and videos reflecting the positive, innovative and successful work public school educators are doing.”

The study also reinforces the importance of teaching critical thinking, especially when it comes to social media, Keskin said.

“When you teach critical thinking to students – young students or college students or the general public – then you have a better chance of not falling into the hands of the people who are posting very negative, false information out there,” he said. “Informed citizens is what we want. Who can think for themselves. Who can look for things to find out if the information is true or not.”