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ASU, Crash Course partner for series of educational YouTube videos

First topics tackled will be English composition, college algebra, data literacy and chemistry

Illustration of crew filming a video
March 31, 2020

Editor’s note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now’s year in review. Read more top stories from 2020.

Arizona State University will expand access to its academic content to a vast new audience through a new partnership with Crash Course, a YouTube channel of educational videos that has 10 million subscribers.

EdPlus, the ASU unit that creates technology and partnerships to develop new ways of teaching and learning, is working with Crash Course to create a series of entry-level course videos, starting with English composition.

Video by Crash Course

ASU has been a pioneer in high-quality online learning, and that expertise will now be available in a new way, according to Sean Hobson, chief design officer for EdPlus, which houses ASU Online.

“We need to be accessible and serve new learners, and we need new designs to do that,” he said. “We can’t expect the designs we have today to be sufficient forever.”

Crash Course is part of the Complexly education company, which was founded by brothers Hank Green and John Green, author of the young adult bestsellers “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Turtles All the Way Down.” They started in 2011 making fun, engaging tutorial videos meant for K–12 classrooms. Crash Course now has more than 1,200 videos in 39 subjects on YouTube.

“Many universities are seeing YouTube as a repository for their traditional learning assets, taking lectures they deliver in a classroom, posting them on YouTube and expecting the world to consume them in that format,” Hobson said.

“But we know through the design, development and deployment of digital learning at scale that you need to design with the learner in mind. And so the way we’re developing for the YouTube content is much different than what we might develop for an online degree program.”

The new content won’t offer credit or replace any degree programs, but rather it will be a supplement for high school or college learners.

The ASU series will begin with four subjects — English composition, college algebra, data literacy and chemistry. Each subject will have about 15 videos covering major points in each topic. The content is developed by the same ASU faculty experts who create ASU Online courses, and then the Crash Course team takes the content, develops a script and produces the videos.

Crash Course videos are typically around 15 minutes long, include a combination of live action, photographs and animation and have a host who’s engaging and relatable to the viewers.

“We know that a lot of what we’re discussing is dense, complex or just plain difficult to learn at times,” said Nick Jenkins, senior producer at Complexly.

“Making sure that we acknowledge that with our tone is very important. It’s about making sure no one feels shame for needing help to learn or study. In that comes opportunities for us to relate to our audience, as well as genuine humor — whether that be through a short animation or through our host expressing their own struggle.”

The typical Crash Course learner is high school to college age, Jenkins said.

“But also by responding to comments on videos and meeting them at conventions, I personally have experienced that they’re fluent in online culture as well as pop culture, and they are kind, generous, come from all over the world, and they want to help others learn as much as they want to learn themselves,” he said.

In crafting the videos, the team tries to capture the passion of the professors, according to Ceri Riley, content manager at Complexly.

“What inspired our expert consultants to dedicate their educational lives to a subject, and how can we fold in that excitement?” Riley said.

“Are there moments that make the script editor go ‘wait, what?’ and are we giving space for the host to experience the delight of learning on camera? These kinds of moments can be peoples’ fondest memories of traditional learning environments, so we try to capture them in our scripts.”

The host is key to creating empathy with the viewer. The Green brothers host most of the videos themselves. The astronomy series is hosted by Phil Plait, known as the “bad astronomer,” and the entrepreneurship videos are hosted by Anna Akana, a singer and actress. ASU’s Crash Course videos on English composition will be hosted by Yumna Samie, an ASU junior majoring in English and communications.

“I was probably in middle school or high school when I first saw the Crash Course videos, and they’ve always been a huge part of my life,” Samie said. “In my high school chemistry class, I was failing for a lot of it and I used Crash Course to pull myself up to a 'B.'”

Samie has done a lot of public speaking, including a TEDxASUWest talk and participating in the Regents Cup debate competition. So she was quickly able to make the switch to hosting an educational video.

“I trained my voice into a different medium and delivered it in a way that wasn’t stilted,” she said. “Crash Course videos are casual and fun but also informative, so I trained myself to talk in that way.”

When Samie went to Montana to make the videos on English composition, she had an essay due.

“We were going through all the steps of composition and how to outline and make a good argument, and it really helped, so if I can use it I’m sure others will use it as well,” she said.

ASU has its own YouTube channel, which has more than 34,000 subscribers and includes videos that can help viewers gain a new skill, learn more about the challenges facing our world, or explore more about ASU, its culture of innovation and inclusion, and college life in general.

YouTube is interested in more quality learning content on the platform, and to encourage a focus on learning, it has modified the user experience by creating a "learning playlist.” The partnership with Crash Course is a first step in that direction, according to Wayne Anderson, EdPlus senior director for design and development.

“A lot of YouTube is one video and then a random video that comes up next. A learning playlist is a modification where you can connect a series of videos together and it removes the recommendation bar with the other distraction videos,” he said.

“That was a big win from the educational creators’ standpoint. There’s a lot of frustration from creators who make a video on astronomy and then it’s recommending a video saying the Earth is flat. We can control that experience a little bit better.”

While these new learning videos will be offered through ASU for You, a compilation of the university’s digital teaching and learning resources for learners of all ages, the partnership with the Crash Course team will also allow ASU to make its expertise more broadly available.

“There’s a lovely mission overlap between Complexly and ASU in that we both want to lower the barriers to entry of education for everyone who wants to learn,” Riley said.

“Working with ASU-affiliated faculty on short learning playlists has also let us experiment with teaching a lot of problem-solving skills, like how to edit a written draft or how to solve an algebraic equation. We haven’t tackled much writing or pure mathematics on Crash Course before, so it was great to have ASU’s support and experience with these subjects.”

Watch the first video, on English composition, below.

Top illustration by Complexly

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