YouTube Realized McLuhan’s Vision of Education for the TV Generation


Marshall McLuhan with TV at a Monday Night Seminar

While most people don’t equate television and learning, in the mid-twentieth century, at least a few educators imagined that the two were an ideal match. Long before video-sharing platforms like YouTube existed, a minority of educators and futurists already foresaw a time when “television learning” would become the norm (as an example, consider how education is depicted in the futuristic 1967 short film, 1999 AD). Perhaps the most well-known champion of television learning, however, was media studies scholar Marshall McLuhan [But his attitude was far from one-sided positivism and he also had later doubts.]

Marshall McLuhan’s Vision of Education for the TV Generation

As McLuhan once remarked, “To expect a ‘turned on’ child of the electric age to respond to the old education modes is rather like expecting an eagle to swim. It’s simply not within his environment, and therefore incomprehensible.” His solution was to create education geared to the specific needs and sensory preferences of the television generation. In short, McLuhan believed that new technologies such as television could overcome the tedious nature of the current approach to education. In a 1969 interview with Playboy Magazine, McLuhan, who had six adult children at the time, was asked where he would educate his children if they were still school age. His response was clear: “Certainly not in our current schools, which are intellectual penal institutions. In today’s world, to paraphrase Jefferson, the least education is the best education, since very few young minds can survive the intellectual tortures of our educational system.”

So, what was McLuhan’s solution? According to McLuhan, it was not enough to put televisions in classrooms, which was something some of his peers were calling for at the time. Instead, he said, “We have to ask what TV can do, in the instruction of English or physics or any other subject, that the classroom cannot do as presently constituted.” According to McLuhan, what TV could do was “deeply involve youth in the process of learning, illustrating graphically the complex interplay of people and events, the development of forms, the multileveled interrelationships between and among such arbitrarily segregated subjects as biology, geography, mathematics, anthropology, history, literature and languages.” While this may sound shocking, McLuhan never viewed television as a passive medium for couch potatoes. For him, it was always an active medium.

So, what would McLuhan have thought of YouTube? It seems highly likely that McLuhan would have enthusiastically embraced YouTube as a platform and potential way to transform education. After all, it is not only global in scope, enabling anyone from anywhere in the world with access to a digital device and Internet to share videos on any subject, but also highly interactive. Unlike a textbook, for example, learners can make their own videos and upload and share them with other potential learners and leave feedback on what videos are and are not useful. On this basis, it seems likely that had McLuhan lived to see the launch of YouTube, he would have readily embraced it as a breakthrough educational technology. One might further speculate that McLuhan that would have eventually launched his own YouTube channel.

Early Research on YouTube’s Educational Benefits Was Mixed

To be clear, despite the fact that content-craving K-12 teachers and college professors quickly discovered YouTube (on a bad day, there is nothing like a YouTube video to fill up those unaccounted for minutes in one’s lesson plan), YouTube has also at times proven to be a highly controversial platform among educators.

On the one hand, there were YouTube’s early enthusiasts. Diane Skiba’s 2007 article in Nursing Education  exemplifies why many educators were ready and willing to embrace the platform as an educational tool. As Skiba observed over a decade ago, “If you want to engage students of the Net generation, you will want to explore this tool as an adjunct to your classroom or online teaching environments. For example, what will you do if tech-savvy learners submit video projects that they have created instead of traditional papers?” As Skiba emphasized, “This is not a far-fetched idea” since 57% of “online teens” already create content for the Internet. But Skiba wasn’t simply imagining YouTube as a way to enable students to produce video essays. As she also observed, “It is important to think about how tools like YouTube can be used to create a learning community,” since these new tools also allow students to replace passive learning with active participation.

Read the rest of this essay at

 McLuhan at the CBC in Toronto, January 1966
“Education must always concentrate its resources at the major point of information intake, we merely have to ask, from what sources do growing minds nowadays acquire most factual data? How much critical awareness is conferred at these points?” – McLuhan, M. (1955) “Communications and Communication Arts”, Teacher College Record. 57 (4), 104-110.

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