Traditional education has its shortcomings. Schools are inflexible, and students must adhere to strict lesson schedules rather than learn what they want when they want. Higher education institutes are often more flexible than schools, but universities can be prohibitively expensive. A student can focus on a subject of their choice and decide (within reason) when they study, but only if they can afford the tuition fees.

Because of these issues, it is understandable why many people devote some of their free time to educating themselves, be it through reading new books or learning new skills. Learning in this way not only means people can learn what they want when they want, but it also means that people can invest as much time and money as they want (or can) into these personal projects.

As social media and streaming platforms have developed over the last twenty years, content creators have emerged who are fulfilling this demand for learning formats that are flexible and free of charge. There is now a well-established supply of video essays, podcasts, and tutorials on platforms such as YouTube, Spotify, and (most recently) TikTok that cover every subject you can think of. A lot of people pay attention to this educational content.

For example, Smarter Every Day is a YouTube channel that teaches viewers about science. This channel has over 10 million subscribers. On the one hand, accessible education is a very good thing, and it does not get much more accessible than social media channels dedicated to educating viewers. All you need is a phone and an internet connection, and vast amounts of educational content are at your fingertips. On the other hand, education via social media and streaming platforms has the potential to be unreliable. Consumers should carefully assess which content creators they listen to.

What is the problem?

The main problem with education via social media platforms is that content creators typically seek to monetize what they post online, and this ultimately depends on getting as much interaction with their content as possible (be this via views or reactions and comments). For example, most YouTube channels that monetize their content do so via adverts that the content creator allows to appear before or during their videos. Payment is on a per-view basis, so the more views a video gets, the more money it makes. Sponsorships are another way for content creators to monetize content, but a brand will only be interested in sponsoring videos that get a lot of views, so the incentive for content creators to attract more viewers remains. The economics of TikTok is slightly different but ultimately produces the same incentive to gain more online attention. TikTok pays content creators from a central pot termed the ‘creator fund’, but the proportion of the creator fund that a content creator will get depends on the amount of online interaction (views and reactions) their content generates.

This incentive to maximize views and online interaction can compromise the quality of educational content. Firstly, channels with well-established viewerships may adhere to strict video schedules to keep their viewers engaged and ensure they have a regular income. As a result, they can compromise on quality to meet deadlines.

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Secondly, creators may alter their content to entice viewers to watch it. For example, they may play on the subconscious biases of their target audience to make their content more appealing to them.

Accuracy is key for education

For instance, during the summer of 2022, numerous videos predicting the imminent social and economic collapse of China were posted on YouTube by channels that produce content on contemporary economics and finance. These videos were in reaction to the challenges China had faced earlier this year because of frequent COVID-related lockdowns and the economic fallout of an increasingly unstable real estate market.

These videos were not level-headed assessments of the overall health of China. However, they were inevitably appealing to significant numbers of Western viewers because China increasingly appears in Western media as a serious geopolitical competitor with a penchant for authoritarianism and a general disregard for human rights. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, platforms such as YouTube and TikTok are for entertainment first and foremost.

Content is not scrutinized for accuracy, and there is no compulsion for content creators to cite their sources, much less to provide bibliographies. By contrast, an academic article or book has to undergo rigorous scrutiny before advertising academic credentials and must provide a bibliography. In this respect, educational content on social media platforms cannot compete with traditional educational material.

What is the solution for education?

Users of social media should carefully vet which channels they go to for educational purposes because they vary in quality for all the reasons laid out above. Vital questions they should ask include: do video titles seem sensationalist? Or does the creator cite their sources? They should consider the answers carefully and approach these videos cautiously.