How Do We Actually Learn Stuff from YouTube?

Well, I’ve spent the final semester of my master’s program doing research for my capstone project, and here it is!

How Does Digital Literacy Mediate Informal Learning on YouTube? I’m so glad you asked! You can watch the video above, and find some additional resources below.

  • If you want to read my full analysis, you can download the PDF here: Burlington_Capstone.
  • For resources on teaching digital literacy, visit
  • To learn more about the scholarly work on digital literacy, I particularly recommend these two excellent papers:
    • Bawden, D. (2008). Origins and Concepts of Digital Literacy. In Lankshear, C., and Knobel, M., (Eds.) Digital Literacies: concepts, policies and practices (pp. 16-32). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.
    • Meyers, E. M., Erickson, I., & Small, R. V. (2013). Digital literacy and informal learning environments: an introduction. Learning, media and technology, 38(4), 355-367. doi: 10.1080/17439884.2013.783597


The slow but steady growth of digital badges

Digital badges are one of the most exciting innovations in educational technology in recent years. A badge is a kind of certification showing that you have completed an educational activity, project, or course. However, unlike traditional certifications, they are designed to be live digital items that can be displayed anywhere and contain metadata on the issuer, learning activities undertaken, and standard that has been reached (Gibson, Ostashewski, Flintoff, & Knight, 2013). This makes them instantly verifiable, and the open badging infrastructure allows a wide array of institutions and organizations to issue them (Ahn, Pellicone, & Butler, 2014). The concept was developed in 2011, and the Mozilla Open Badges project became one of the leading badge issuers (Gibson et al., 2013). Badging was instantly recognized as a technology with the potential to revolutionize—or perhaps undermine—traditional systems of certification and credentialing (Young, 2012). Since then, badging, both in terms of acceptance of badging and in the prevalence of it and the infrastructure behind it, has been growing steadily. What makes badges more valuable than traditional certifications? According to a report from American Institutes for Research (Finkelstein, Knight, & Manning, 2013, p. 2):

“Some of the characteristics that are unique to digital badges include their ongoing connection to sources that can validate their issue; some form of evidence of the achievements they denote; and an emerging, consistent standard regarding what constitutes a badge, making it possible for these digital representations of accomplishment to be portable and displayed side by side with badges received from a range of sources.”

Educause started its badging program in 2013, and saw significant growth from 2013 to 2014 (Hart, 2015). There is a strong interest in the potential of badging from many large and prestigious non-profits and foundations. The MacArthur Foundation and Purdue University, to name just two, both have badging initiatives. Groups like Badge Alliance have also attracted corporate partners from Blackboard and Acclaim (“Badge Alliance,” n.d.).

open badge example image

A badge from Mozilla Open Badges

The research on badging is mixed. The very different contexts of different badge programs makes it difficult to assess the concept as a whole or make an generalized statements (Ahn et al., 2014). Badging within a course, as part of gamification of the course, has been shown to be a significant motivator for some, but not all students (Fanfarelli & Mcdaniel, 2015). Open badges on technical subjects that serve as a sort of mini-technical certification have become wide-spread, but there’s a dearth of research on their impact and prevalence (Ahn et al., 2014). There is a movement to implement a badging system in the context of adult continuing and vocational education (Finkelstein et al., 2013). Badges might be particularly useful in this context because they would be serving a population that has little access to formal learning credentials like diplomas and degrees.

More than MOOCs or other components of “open education,” badges can offer a real, verifiable credential, which makes them an essential tool in the decentralization of education (Ma, 2015). Although badging’s impacts on learners, communities, and traditional education institutions are not yet well understood, the future impact of badging may be transformational on a large scale (Ahn et al., 2014; Gibson et al., 2013).


Instructional Designer K. Anthony’s website lists the badges they’ve earned from online learning platform Treehouse. You can see them here:


Ahn, J., Pellicone, A., & Butler, B. S. (2014). Open badges for education: what are the implications at the intersection of open systems and badging?. Research in Learning Technology, 22. Retrieved from

Badge Alliance > About. (n.d.) Badge Alliance. Retrieved from

Fanfarelli, J. R., & McDaniel, R. (2015). Individual Differences in Digital Badging: Do Learner Characteristics Matter?. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 43(4), 403-428.
Chicago. Retrieved from

Finkelstein, J., Knight, E., & Manning, S. (2013). American Institutes for Research. The potential and value of using digital badges for adult learners. Retrieved from

Gibson, D., Ostashewski, N., Flintoff, K., Grant, S., & Knight, E. (2013). Digital badges in education. Education and Information Technologies, 20(2), 403-410. Retrieved from

Hart, M. (2015, 14 January). Badges: A New Measure of Professional Development. Campus Technology. Retrieved from

Ma, X. (2015, April). Evaluating the Implication of Open Badges in an Open Learning Environment to Higher Education. 2015 International Conference on Education Reform and Modern Management. Atlantis Press.

Young, J. R. (2012). “Badges” Earned Online Pose Challenge to Traditional College Diplomas. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

A Brief Intro to the Open Educational Resources Movement

The term Open Educational Resources (OERs) was coined in 2002 at a UNESCO education conference (“2012 Paris”, 2012). In the thirteen years since, many individuals and institutions have come on board and the movement continues to grow.

cover of college algebra textbook

You can get the openstax OER College Algebra textbook for free right now

The concept behind OERs is simple. Instead of having textbook companies pay various authors to write a dozen competing textbooks and then charge students hundreds of dollars to access them, why not have a university or public foundation pay to have one really good textbook written, and then put it on the internet, for free?

OERs are free both in the sense of free speech and free beer. That is, they are free to use and usually free to modify, and there is no cost for students to access them. (Some OER groups do charge a price for a printed version of their book to cover the cost of printing and binding, but make the online version available for free [Douglas-Gabriel, 2015]). They are usually protected by a some-rights-reserved license, such as one of the creative commons licenses.

An increasing number of colleges and universities are encouraging or even requiring instructors to make use of OERs. University of Maryland University College recently made the news for eliminating textbooks and requiring total use of OERs and other no-cost resources (Mulhere, 2015). This movement has been spurred on by by concern over the rising prices of textbooks and also by an increasing urge to take advantage of the internet to make learning and knowledge accessible to all.

The cost of textbooks has, indeed, been spiraling out of control in recent years, becoming a significant burden for students in Canada and the US (Jerema, 2010; Weissmann, 2013).

OER initiatives have, in some cases, been shown to help reduce this cost sharply. For example, at UMass Amherst, “the university spent $60,000 on faculty grants to produce open textbooks and students saved roughly $1 million” (Mulhere, 2015).

One of the biggest challenges in the OER movement is quality assessment and assurance (Atkins, Brown, & Hammond, 2007). If an instructor is simply plucking a textbook off the internet, how are they to know that it is accurate and useful? The current best solutions are institutional backing and post-publication third-party review. By having OER projects housed under prestigious universities (such as OpenStax at Rice) and by encouraging the development of platforms for experts to rate, review, and revise OERs, concerns about quality can be allayed (Atkins, Brown, & Hammond, 2007; Douglas-Gabriel, 2015)

Critics and even proponents of OERs also ask: how will OERs be sustained? (Atkins, Brown, & Hammond, 2007) It’s easy to condemn textbook publishers for greed, but at least educational institutions can count of the profit motive to keep them making textbooks. Many OER sources are run by non-profits or grants, or out of university programs. If they lose funding, what happens then? They need to be hosted, maintained, and updated over time. So far, there doesn’t seem to be a unified answer to this problem (Atkins, Brown, & Hammond, 2007).



2012 Paris OER Declaration. (2012, June 22). UNESCO. Retrieved from

Atkins, D. E., Brown, J. S., & Hammond, A. L. (2007). A review of the open educational resources (OER) movement: Achievements, challenges, and new opportunities (pp. 1-84). Creative common. Chicago. Retrieved from

Douglas-Gabriel, D. (2015, August 17). How college students can save money on pricey textbooks. Washington Post. Retrieved from 

Jerema, C. (2010, June 18). Why textbooks are so expensive. Maclean’s. Retrieved from

Mulhere, K. (2015, September 21). Is This the Solution to Crazy High Textbook Prices? Time. Retrieved from

Weissmann, J. (2013, January 3). Why Are College Textbooks So Absurdly Expensive? The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Movies With No Romance in Them: Beetlejuice

I love a good romantic movie. Ask me about how many times I’ve watched Pride and Prejudice, if you want to listen to me talk for like 7 uninterrupted minutes. But sometimes it feels like the film industry forgets that there are other forms of meaningful human experience OTHER THAN ROMANCE. So I get excited about non-romantic films sometimes.

This is an interesting one, because the strongest relationship in the movie is a romantic one: that between the married couple Barbara and Adam. But their romance isn’t the SUBJECT of the movie. Instead it’s portrayed as a simple obvious fact that they love and support each other and act as a team. Is it weird that I find this so refreshing to see in a Hollywood movie? I feel like we don’t get this a lot.

Aside from that background romance, there isn’t any hint of romance in the plot of the movie, which instead revolves around death, isolation, authenticity, and familial bonds. And watching an adorable waifish baby Winona Rider be a teeny goth out of water.Lydia from Beetlejuice


School is Bullshit: A Very Exciting Table

When I saw this table from Bryan Caplan, I got really really excited. This is an excellent framing of the question of whether school is bullshit.

Economic Models of Education

There’s a lot more rows. Click through for the whole thing

Caplan is saying that we know that higher education correlates with earning more money, and he can think of three explanations: either schools actually teach you useful things, or universities just admit people who would have made more money anyway, or going to college signals to employers that you’re the kind of person who they should pay more money to. (Or some combination of these.)

This guy is apparently writing a book called The Case Against Education, which, needless to say, I will read with extreme interest.


The Pilgrims Were Dicks: A Brief Exploration

This is one of those things that, as soon as you learn it, you assume that A) everyone else already knew it and B) you yourself have known it forever. But it occurred to me today that I did NOT, in fact, know this until recently. So, in case anyone doesn’t know this yet, I consider it my duty to implant this fact into your brain.

The Pilgrims were NOT fleeing religious persecution when they sailed on the Mayflower and founded Plymouth Colony.

This lie entered my brain at some point during my childhood and remained lodged there until I read the excellent American Nations a couple years ago.

Here is an imprecise, unsourced, truncated account of what happened:

There was this hella weird church group in rural eastern England in the late 1500s. They were basically a super-strict cult like group. Think like one of those american cult compound groups, basically. They were a sect of Puritans, but even bigger dicks than a lot of Puritans were.

Not surprisingly, all their neighbors hated them. It must have been like having the Westboro Baptist Church in your town. Ugh. So the surrounding, marginally less dickish people made life very difficult for this church of whackos. Eventually, the whackos were like “Fuck you, we don’t have to take this!” and they packed up their wives, children, and farming implements (?) and pissed off to the Netherlands.

What’s that? The Netherlands.

At the time, the Netherlands were the most liberal educated society in Europe. They had advanced commerce, a literate and artistic culture, and freedom of religion. So these Puritan assholes were like “fuck yeah! We can totally do our weird religion stuff here in the Netherlands!” and everything was cool for a like a decade or two, and the whole Plymouth thing almost never happened.

But then a thing happened that you and I can totally see coming, but those dickheads apparently couldn’t. Here’s a hint: The Netherlands were the most liberal nation in Europe. It was too freakin liberal for the Puritans! This is as if the Westboro Baptist Church relocated to San Francisco.

The church leader dudes were like “What the eff? What is this liberal decadence? They won’t let us hang people for breaking church law, and all our kids want to run away to Amsterdam and not be as big dickheads as we are!!”

So the Pilgrims packed up their wives, the children that had not yet run off to Amsterdam, and their farming implements (?), and they fucked off to the New World, where no one could stop them from forcibly keeping their kids in the church and hanging dissenters. Hooray!

The Pilgrims came to the Americas, not because they were seeking religious freedom, but in order to enforce their own religious laws and not have to put up with liberal pluralism.

And that is a truly impressive level of dickishness.

Movies With No Romance In Them: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I love a good romantic movie. Ask me about how many times I’ve watched Pride and Prejudice, if you want to listen to me talk for like 7 uninterrupted minutes. But sometimes it feels like the film industry forgets that there are other forms of meaningful human experience OTHER THAN ROMANCE. So I get excited about non-romantic films sometimes.

There are a few minor elements of romance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but they’re not very annoying and they don’t encroach on the main plot.

The movie that this movie is a sequel to (is there a better phrase for that?) had a romance between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter as a significant sub-plot. But, being almost entirely free of misogynistic romance tropes, and carried off by some excellent acting, it was enjoyable.

Steve and Peggy

Winter Soldier, on the other hand, has only the following hints of romance:

  • Steve being sad that he can’t be with Peggy
  • Natasha Romanoff trying to set Steve up on dates because she’s sick of him being such a sad puppy all the time
  • A brief overture of Steve asking his neighbor out on a date

These probably take up about five minutes of screen time total. Like Pacific Rim, this is definitely a movie about the importance of friendship (in it’s many forms), and the strongest relationships in the movie are between Steve and Natasha (a complex friendship), Steve and Sam Wilson (a meet-cute-turned-comerades-in-arms friendship, which if it was not a trope before, I now demand become an immensely popular Hollywood trope), and of course, between the two eponymous characters, Steve and Bucky (I would call it a romantic friendship, though it depends on who you ask).

I love superhero movies with well-done romance plots (the first Captain America, Iron Man 2-3, The Superman one with Kate Bosworth) and I even sometimes like superhero movies with corny and shoe-horned romance (Batman Returns, The Incredible Hulk [the Ed Norton one], pretty much all the X-Men movies [ugh, shut up about Logan/Jean already, movies]). But I really, really want more non-romantic superhero movies. Who do I have to bribe to get Black Widow origin movie with no romance?

School is Bullshit: One Level Deeper, with the Unschoolers

In an earlier post, I described how learning about the existence free democratic education rocked me back on my heels and forced me to confront the possibility that coercive education is unnecessary and unjustified.

If you can just let kids play all day and only go to class if they feel like it, and the kids still turn out fine, what are we doing all this “formal education” stuff for?

But it got worse about a year ago, when I started learning about the Unschoolers. I first heard about this from an episode of wife-swap, where one of the families was a sort of hippy-ish, stay-at-home-dad-having family with two little girls who were ‘unschooled’. The swapped-in mom was appalled, and lobbied hard to get the girls some standardized testing. When I first saw it, I was on the appalled mom side. You don’t do school AT ALL with your kids? You just let them do whatever they want and answer their questions and maybe take them to some museums or something? That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, that would never work!

(“That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard” has been a recurring theme with me as I delve into this stuff.)

Contrary to my expectations, it actually seems like it does pretty much work. I read Sandra Dodd’s The Big Book of Unchooling, and her website. Then I read some blogs of grown unschooled-kids. Although anecdote is the weakest form of data, it is still data. This data was enough to convince me that it’s at least possible to unschool your kid and still have them turn out well-adjusted, literate, educable, and intellectually curious.

One of the few studies (h/t SSC) conducted on unschool kids showed that while public school kids from the same income bracket and parental education level were above grade level, the unschooled kids were only at grade level.

Let me restate that. Without doing ANY SCHOOL AT ALL. EVER. you can still do only slightly worse than kids who’ve done YEARS of public school on school-based tests. Anecdotes from the unschooling community suggest that the kids who wanted to go to college caught up in a year or two and did at least as well in higher ed than their peers.

This is a very small amount of evidence, and it has numerous problems. (More on those later.) I’m not suggesting shuttering all the schools tomorrow. But it’s enough to convince me that the possibility exists that without any school whatsoever, kids can still have perfectly good academic and life outcomes. This possibility should strike terror into the hearts of the entire formal education establishment.

School is Bullshit: The Most Obvious Counterargument

Before I go any deeper into the arguments in favor of the School is Bullshit hypothesis, I want to start outlining the basic, gut-level arguments against it.

To start with, as soon as you say that schooling might not be needed for good life outcomes, you start to think, but isn’t one of the main tenants of international development that schooling is necessary for good life outcomes?

Indeed, one of the millennium development goals is universal primary education. But is this a means, or a goal? Does sending kids to school help improve life outcomes, or do we consider school attendance as one of the life outcomes we’re trying to improve?

When I tried to find evidence on this question, I came up unexpectedly short. It’s easy to prove that there is a high correlation in the developing world between a mother’s educational level and her children’s life outcomes. But this is not relevant to the question at hand. If education were a consumer good, we would expect wealthier people to attain more of it, and also to have better access to healthcare and other resources. This doesn’t prove that one causes the other.

I’m having trouble finding any good review of actual research on causation. The closest I can find is Givewell’s review of education charities. They are dubious. Though they don’t dismiss the idea, just say that there’s not enough evidence to substantiate it. So it may just be no one’s bothered to check.

I will keep looking and report back if I find anything more firm, but at the moment, I think we can at least say that we should be highly skeptical of education’s effects on life outcomes.

School is Bullshit: An Introduction

I want you all to take seriously the possibility that pretty much the whole world has been doing school fundamentally wrong for the past two hundred years. I take this possibility very seriously, and am going to be doing a lot of investigation into it (and talking about it on this blog). Let me explain what I mean.

I had a lot of formal education: public schools (in one of the best public school districts in the country) up through 9th grade, then three years of prep school. Private college (dropped out), community college, and an undergrad degree from a public university (go Huskies I guess). Now I’m working on a master’s degree in education. I seldom questioned the value of all this education. I have several teachers in my family, and I’ve always valued their work.

Up until a few years ago, I figured that U.S. schools needed some serious reforms and probably a lot more money, but it never occurred to me to question the basic principles.

Then I read about a place called Sudbury Valley School, and doing so had a major-earthquake-size effect on my mental landscape of the subject.

Sudbury practices what they call free democratic education. (Free as in free speech, not as in free beer.) That is, the school is run entirely on a democratic principles, with each member of the community, faculty, staff, and students, having one and exactly one vote. A five year old student has the same amount of political power as any of the teachers. The school has no curriculum, gives no grades, and has no graduation requirements. They sometimes have classes, when the students organize them, but attendance is not mandatory. In essence, their idea is let the kids do whatever they want, and they’ll learn the things they’re most passionate about.

When I first heard about this, my thought was “Oh my god, that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard in my life. That would never work.”

Then it turns out that it does work.

Sudbury has been around for almost 50 years, and they’re not the only school to try this. They’ve been around long enough to see what happens to the kids, at least informally, and it turns out the kids have perfectly good life outcomes. About 80% go on to college, and those who don’t find jobs, or start their own businesses, or become artists, or do the other things that people who went to traditional schools do.

Do you see the problem yet?

If kids can spend 13 years running around and playing, and working on projects and practicing music and never once be coerced into anything and still have good life outcomes, this is an existential threat to traditional education. We don’t have to prove that these kids do better than traditionally schooled kids for this threat to be serious. If we can simply prove that 13 years of being forced to sit still in classes they don’t want to attend and taking away the freedom of their childhood isn’t necessary for kids to turn out okay, it’s hard to imagine any justification that could possibly induce me to support continuing this system.

I don’t know whether school is bullshit. In fact, I wanted to title this series “Is School Bullshit?” but this isn’t clickhole, so I didn’t. The statements above have a lot of assumptions, and a lot of areas yet unexplored. I’m going to be doing a lot of reading and thinking and talking on this subject to try and make things clearer.

But I hope you’ll understand why, even with hugely incomplete information, I feel so urgently about this. We spend hundreds billions of dollars on education in the US alone each year. I think it’s really possible that the entire fundamental structure of our educational system is wrong, and that hardly anyone has even bothered to check.