October Issue 2013

By | Life Style | Technology | Published 11 years ago

For Amna Khan, an undergraduate student of Karachi University, academic learning does not stop once she steps out of her classrooms. Back at home, she regularly attends a class halfway across the world in one of the top universities, via YouTube — or at least she did, before YouTube was banned in Pakistan. “I was making my way through Yale University’s online courses on political philosophy and literary theory,” she tells Newsline. “Some of these courses help me better understand the things I learn in my classes, and some I take just because I don’t get to study them in my own university.” Yale University — along with other universities such as Harvard, Standford and MIT — has its own channel on YouTube, where videos of entire courses are uploaded for the benefit of students all around the globe. For people like Amna, and many others, YouTube is not something where they can merely watch videos of cats or, contrary to popular belief, watch the blasphemous Innocence of Muslims video over and over again. It offers access to a wide variety of educational tools, religious content and tutorial videos, and serves as a platform for different forms of creative expression, and banning it has deprived the people of Pakistan of these opportunities to learn and interact with the world.

All around the world, YouTube is revolutionising the way knowledge is shared and acquired, and its effects have just now begun to be felt in Pakistan. According to a survey conducted in July 2013, by Bolo Bhi (an organization geared towards advocacy, policy and research in the areas of internet access, digital security and privacy), 74% of Pakistanis who use YouTube access videos of academic tutorials and lectures. And for good reason, since YouTube offers a wide variety of educational tools, ranging from university courses to TedTalks, where professionals of different fields give lectures, and vlogs such as Crash Course and Minute Physics, which offer short lessons on physics, biology, history and literature in engaging and entertaining ways. Everything is just a click away, whether it is a talk on the latest innovation in neuroscience, an animated lecture on organic chemistry or a literary analysis of The Great Gatsby delivered in hip-hop style rap (the YouTube channel ThugNotes presents classic literature summary and analysis in the language of hip-hop).

Various Pakistani universities, such as IBA, LUMS and NUST also maintain their own YouTube channels where they upload videos of conferences and seminars they host on campus. These videos benefit not just students enrolled at one specific institute but anyone with access to YouTube. The Virtual University (VU) of Pakistan post videos on a wide range of subjects — business and finance, law and psychology, among others.

It is not just university-level students who are benefiting — YouTube hosts numerous educational channels aimed at young children, which can be effectively used by parents and teachers as teaching tools for pre-schoolers or kindergarteners. Maheen Ibrahim, a mother of three primary school-going children, says she often uses videos on YouTube to better explain basic concepts such as alphabets and phonics to them. “It is not an easy task, making a child learn the alphabet or numbers. YouTube videos such as those by Sesame Street and BabyTV, with their songs and bright colours and animated characters, played an important role in my children’s preschool learning.”

The best thing about YouTube is that there is content available in every language. In 2011, Google (which owns YouTube) announced that 60% of its users are non-English speakers, and this number will surely have increased in the ensuing years. There is a plethora of Urdu language videos for children — Urdu nursery rhymes and lullabies, cartoons and stories. Khan Academy, a huge virtual library consisting of lessons on all subjects, has a separate YouTube channel for lessons given in Urdu. Along with Urdu-language videos, there are also videos in every regional language of Pakistan — a Sindhi tutorial on how to monetise your blog and website, a Pashto video lesson of Adobe Photoshop, a Balochi video teaching embroidery design, you name it. This, coupled with the fact that YouTube itself is user-friendly even for those not fluent in English, means that it can serve as a great tool for the empowerment of people who may not have had formal education. Skills pertaining to their respective fields can be honed and new skills can be learnt, paving the way for greater employment opportunities. For instance, instead of signing up for expensive courses at IT training centres such as Arena, you can learn different graphic design and multimedia software for free via YouTube tutorials in your preferred language.

When Asma Shafiq, a house-wife with a knack for embroidery and jewellery-making decided to turn her hobby into a home-run business, she turned to YouTube for inspiration. “It gave me an idea of the latest trends in jewellery-making around the world,” she says. “I learnt new designs and techniques I didn’t know before.” For people like Asma, YouTube offers a chance to keep up with the world of crafts making and art, and to use this knowledge to create new avenues of employment for themselves.

Many people, especially the young, also turn to YouTube for religious knowledge. With channels such as QuranWeekly and Organization for Islamic Learning offering short videos on different aspects of Islamic knowledge and sermons given by scholars who speak in an open and engaging manner, many young people prefer YouTube to more traditional means of gaining religious knowledge. According to the Bolo Bhi survey, 27% of people who frequent YouTube use it to access religious content. “It’s more convenient watching religious videos online than reading long-winding religious sermons which are difficult to understand anyway,” says Anum Shaharyar, a frequent visitor of the QuranWeekly channel.

Besides the acquisition of different forms of knowledge, YouTube is increasingly serving as a platform on which Pakistani artists can showcase their talent and interact with audiences directly, without the need of intermediates such as recording companies and mainstream television channels. In recent years, several musicians and comedians have emerged through YouTube alone, musicians such as Ali Gul Pir and Bilal Khan, as well as the comedian Usman Khalid Butt. In each of these artists’ cases, YouTube was instrumental in launching their careers. In a country where the performing arts industry is just beginning to develop, YouTube levels the playing field by making sure that everyone has the opportunity to share their work. Regarding the ban on YouTube, Ali Gul Pir tells Newsline, “YouTube is a wonderful place where artists get to express themselves. It a medium without any boundaries and people should not be denied the opportunities it provides.”


This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2013 issue under the heading “Watch and Learn.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.