Online videos help students learn about philosophy, economics, and the role of government in a free society.

In the digital age, an idea can travel around the world in just a few clicks — but so can every other idea. The resulting cacophony easily drowns out moderate and well-reasoned voices. All the more so in the hotly contested world of politics, where shouting the loudest, or making the most absurd claims, is often more effective at gaining attention than speaking rationally.

The Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University faced this challenge head-on in 2011 when they chose video — the fastest growing medium online — to help students and citizens understand the foundations of a free society and human flourishing.

The institute’s Learn Liberty Project covers critical modern topics like criminal justice policy reform, the gender pay gap, and mandatory prison sentences, as well as how smart, limited government can promote liberty and justice. “Learn Liberty doesn’t have all the answers,” its website says, “but we do have over 300 videos with real professors” — scholars from economics, political science, and law who help shape the project’s content.

The most popular videos — like “Why Thieves Hate Free Markets,” on social collaboration — each have been viewed over one million times.

“You put out the content and really see people care about it,” says Chad Thevenot, executive director of the institute.

Connecting to the Textbook

Even compelling content, however, has to find a way through the online noise. Before the grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Learn Liberty videos were marketed directly to youth and young adults using a combination of social media and search-engine optimization tools. In 2012, the project shifted its approach, looking for ways to reach students in the classroom by marketing the videos as a resource for college professors, curriculum designers, and high school teachers.

This required paying attention to how teachers were already covering similar material. The project developed guides that show teachers how the videos can supplement various textbooks — mapping the available videos to 25 different textbooks across economics, philosophy, business ethics, and political science.

Learn Liberty also developed discussion and quiz questions, suggested readings, cartoons, infographics, and learning games to go along with many of the videos — increasing usability in the classroom and shareability among students. The supplemental materials also provide deeper academic credibility thanks to the diversity of voices and materials they represent.

The grant has concluded, but the Learn Liberty video project continues, including a partnership with Curriki, one of the web’s leading sites for online teaching. Ultimately, Thevenot says, the project hopes to obtain “deeper engagement with the ideas and the freedom movement itself.”