Anecdotes from a YouTube ban

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“Yesterday was April Fools Day,” I told my sixth-grade English class earlier this week. “Did you play any tricks on your friends?” One student, a tech-savvy kid in the Lego Robot Club, raised his hand. “I told my friend Facebook was going to be blocked. He believed me!”

His friend believed him because a few days earlier the Turkish government had played its own trick: instituting a nationwide ban first on Twitter, then subsequently on YouTube, and later threatening to shut down Facebook as well.

Why were they banned? One second-grade boy had a theory: “They banned Youtube because of Erdogan’s voice!” he asserted confidently. As children can be, he was both far from and humorously close to the truth. It was true that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s voice gave out, reducing his voice to a hilarious squeak at a couple of party rallies. But the real reason for the ban on social media was a series of incriminating leaks, disseminated via Twitter and YouTube, implicating the Prime Minister and other high-ranking party members in scandals and corruption.

The YouTube block in particular was a nuisance. After the ban went into effect in the evening of March 27, I wrote angry rants to my friends about how I had planned to use videos in my lesson the next day, and how upset I was about all the teachers who would have to re-plan their lessons and all the students whose educational experiences would be affected.

This complaint might seem extravagant considering the indulgent nature of most YouTube content, but YouTube is more than cat videos, and videos of all kinds are crucial in today’s ELT pedagogy. Videos are engaging “lead-ins” to introduce a new topic or grammar point. Videos show language in context with properly contextualized facial expression and body language. Videos show different cultures and cultural norms. They also give a means to transcend limitations of the classroom. One teacher cannot have a discussion with herself, but she can show a video of a group of people conversing and use that to demonstrate conversational strategies. One teacher cannot reliably reproduce a wide range of accents, but a video can show different accents. Videos are a life-line for teachers who want to reward their students with a fun activity or who have a few minutes to fill after the lesson material is completed. For these reasons and more, there are several popular ELT blogs dedicated solely to designing lesson plans around videos: Movie Segments to Assess Grammar Goals and Film English to name a couple.

And of course, YouTube is the most comprehensive and most-user friendly repository of videos. My colleagues at school offered workarounds. Change the DNS. Use a VPN, download the video using a YouTube downloader on your computer, put the video on a flash disk, then show the video on the school computer. Paste the YouTube video link into Google Translate, “translate” the link, and then it will play–a handy “Easter egg” he had learned from a student. But it doesn’t change the essential infuriating issue–that it is no longer as easy to utilize a useful educational tool.

The Twitter ban was lifted on Wednesday of this week but the YouTube block continues. It makes me wonder how teachers in other countries that ban it–China, Iran, Pakistan, and a few others–make do, and how unfortunate it is for Turkey be (once again) included in that list.

Photo: Screenshot of a video demonstrating the speaking portion of the Cambridge Flyers exam, which I had planned to show to my students who are preparing for that exam.

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