In 2016, Dr Philip Baron made a video about how to stream security camera footage on a smartphone, and placed it on YouTube. At the time, he knew next to nothing about filming or editing videos professionally. He’d simply identified a challenge, and found the means to communicate a solution. Within a few months, 800 people were watching his video every day and comments were flooding in, asking for new topics to be addressed.

Philip is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering Technology at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) with a passion for pushing the boundaries of pedagogy. While much of his work still takes place in brick-and-mortar classrooms in front of in-person students, his flourishing YouTube channel has resulted in him teaching in increasingly innovative ways to a much broader audience.

This is very much in line with UJ’s approach of using technology for a greater social impact, and has elevated both Philip’s teaching and its reach.

An academic foundation

Philip holds a Bachelor of Engineering Technology, two honours degrees in psychology and religious studies, and a master’s degree in electrical engineering, specialising in acoustics. His PhD involved a cross-disciplinary study between religious studies and cybernetics, which deals with the science of communication systems.

It is his cybernetics background, Philip says, that has had the most significant influence on his approach to teaching. “I became a better teacher when I realised that it’s more important what my students hear than what I say,” he explains. “This involves meeting students where they’re at, adapting my message so that it’s relevant to what they already know, and acknowledging and respecting that communication barriers are present for both students and teachers. These barriers might include someone’s life experience, language proficiency, and physical and mental conditions or disabilities.”

Philip believes in engagement, in conversation, in asking questions, and proactive problem-solving. “I feel like I’m really making a difference when the lines of communication are open,” he adds, “and when I’m helping people at the point where they feel frustrated, challenged and stuck.”

In his teaching, Philip aims to remove abstraction, to do away with rote learning, and to make his explanations real, relevant and memorable. As he started to create more videos on YouTube, this approach fed into his digital lessons, too.

Creating meaningful content

Philip’s videos address an endless variety of practical issues, from how to drill a tile into a wall, to how to replace the rollers on a stuck sliding door, and how to fix a faulty zip. They’re so accessible, easy to understand, and effective to execute that his channel, ecologicaltime, boasts almost 120,000 subscribers and 25,000 daily viewers — and counting. He has created over 1,000 videos to date, with multiple videos garnering over half a million views and several well over a million.

Philip’s inherent curiosity about how things work, combined with his commitment to continuous improvement, has led him to a deep interest in the 60-odd metrics that YouTube monitors. A video’s views, likes, dislikes and comments, Philip has learnt, provide quantitative and qualitative data on how it’s being received. And the ratios between these measures — between likes and views, or likes and dislikes — help to flag areas that need to be edited or polished.

He also analyses how well his titles work, whether his intros draw viewers in or push them away, and which sections of the video people watch the most. Philip is critical of his delivery, aware of when he speaks too quickly or mumbles, and often questions whether he should slow down and explain an important part of a demonstration twice.

Philip’s holistic, multi-pronged approach to education — and especially his use of accessible platforms and informative metrics to facilitate understanding — has influenced the awards he has won. In 2023, he received UJ’s Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Award for Teacher Excellence for the second time, an important award that recognised the work he was undertaking through his YouTube channel.

For inspiration, Philip gets his ideas from personal challenges he encounters, from the endless stream of comments that follow every new video, and from the students in his department.

A broader impact

“My students find Philip’s videos so useful and engaging that, every year, I ask him to produce extra videos for the topics we cover in class,” says Philip’s colleague, lecturer Hennie van der Walt. “His clear explanations and practical demonstrations provide our students with such a solid foundation of understanding that they not only retain the information, but also implement it better.”

Hennie’s years in academia have taught him that the more students see something done, and do it themselves, the better they absorb it. Philip’s videos provide a constant point of reference that students can return to time and again as they seek to understand certain topics. “These videos are transforming how we teach, and they’re having an impact on a much wider group of people, too,” Hennie adds. “Everyone who watches them stands to benefit.”

For Philip, this is perhaps the greatest satisfaction he derives from his project: knowing that he is helping the countless learners, students, laypeople, and specialists who watch his videos and subscribe to his channel every day. “I feel like I’m providing a valuable service to people across all walks of life,” he says.

In facilitating a broader impact, Philip’s work cuts to the greatest gift education provides.

This is very much in line with UJ’s approach of using technology for a greater social impact, and has elevated both Philip’s teaching and its reach.

Philip believes in engagement, in conversation, in asking questions, and proactive problem-solving. “I feel like I’m really making a difference when the lines of communication are open”

Philip’s holistic, multi-pronged approach to education — and especially his use of accessible platforms and informative metrics to facilitate understanding

“My students find Philip’s videos so useful and engaging that, every year, I ask him to produce extra videos for the topics we cover in class,” says Philip’s colleague, lecturer Hennie van der Walt.