Hauer Hsieh (謝政豪) was a “straight-A” student who attended Taiwan’s most prestigious university to study the technical- and impressive-sounding field of agricultural economics.

It is an academic path that many in Taiwan would sorely envy. But when you ask Hauer about it, you get the sense that he feels his formal education was a big waste of time.

“I kind of had to go to NTU to satisfy my parents’ hopes,” he says.

Now several years out of National Taiwan University (NTU), Hauer is the chief executive of an online media company and an accomplished DJ. It is safe to say he landed about as far away from agricultural economics as humanly possible.

Navigating a new, bumpy road

In a culture that values deference to older generations, many students in Taiwan face similar struggles in their educational path.

Hauer has set for himself the mission of helping students find their career passion a little bit more efficiently than he did himself.

What does he have to offer the young and directionless of Taiwan? YouTube videos.

That is, the growing list of educational and entertaining videos on offer at Taiwan Bar, Hauer’s YouTube-based media brand aimed largely at Mandarin speaking middle and high school students.

The videos provide crash courses in diverse subject matter with the hope that students will sample a broad range of disciplines so as to get better informed before taking the plunge into any one pursuit.

“We haven’t empowered children to have enough say,” says Hauer. “Even if parents say ‘okay, you can do whatever, you can be whatever,’ but you ask the kids ‘so what do you want to be?’ They cannot answer.”

The jobs of the future are looking less and less like the jobs of today and Hauer believes that students need to be given better tools if they are going to have any hope of navigating what can be bewildering landscape.

A seat at Taiwan Bar

Visit Taiwan Bar’s YouTube channel and you will be greeted by expressive, often mischievous cartoon animals hosting video series on a variety of topics from history, to economics to law.

The videos, like the courses as a whole, are brief and not intended to exhaust their subject matter.

“We don’t actually want you to understand the whole thing; the purpose is to encourage you to look for more after finishing our video,” says Hauer.

The internet offers a nearly limitless supply of information in the form of online courses or other educational resources, he says.

“So we think that new media isn’t about jamming an hour of content into a five-minute video,” he says. “Instead it should be that after watching a five-minute video you want to spend five hours or maybe five months more on the same topic.”

Students now have the opportunity to figure it out for themselves: Taiwan Bar is just hoping to get them started.

Learning away from the classroom

Hauer himself is an avid fan of online learning. He launched his media career by teaching himself music production with online tutorials. He also spent countless hours watching English language “edutainment” YouTube channels such as the Vlogbrothers and Veritasium.

These channels are at the forefront of a growing trend of purely educational YouTubers that have earned popularity over the past decade and now reach millions of regular viewers. Hauer saw in this trend not just a fun way to disseminate interesting factoids, but also a valuable education tool for Taiwan.

In 2014, he co-founded Taiwan Bar with the help of three other twenty-somethings: Buchi (林辰), who provides narration, JiaJiach (張佳家), who heads up the animation work, and high-school history teacher Thomas Xiao (蕭宇辰). Their videos regularly net hundreds of thousands of views.

Propelled by the strong success of their first video series, which covered Taiwan history, Taiwan Bar continues to expand its catalogue of online courses, most recently releasing the series on law.

A handful of Mandarin language YouTube channels have popped up over the last few years treading similar educational ground: Logic Talk Show (羅輯思維官方頻道) is a prolifically produced general interest talk show; PanSci (泛科學) is a channel aiming to improve coverage of science related topics in Taiwan. But even with other channels competing for eyeballs, Taiwan Bar has managed to grow, now boasting a team of about 20.

Binging on education

The extra manpower is much needed. In early 2016, Taiwan Bar began to prepare for an ambitious expansion of its catalogue of courses. Under the banner of the “Big Catch Project” (大抓周計畫), the company plans to release 50 series on 50 different topics related to specific professional fields. Some of the proposed topics include subjects like mathematics, and even firefighting.

The hope is that with many courses to choose from, students will be able to quickly skim through several video series and from there decide what they would like to study in more depth. “It’s like Netflix for education,” says Hauer. “You can binge watch everything, but before you choose a topic to binge watch, you actually go through every pilot of the programs that the channel offers first.”

It is in essence a way to help students sort through an overabundance of possibilities. As technology advances, the number of professions is expanding, and the need for specialization increasing. This means students must make career decisions at a younger age so as to have time to prepare, says Hauer.

Very often though, rather than giving young people the space to figure out their own career path, the older generation in Taiwan determines that path for them.

“I think the biggest problem is parents,” says Hauer.

The jobs held in high esteem by parents – doctors, lawyers, teachers - are not necessarily the safe bets they once were, but despite the changing realities of Taiwan’s modern workforce, many parents still define success in terms of progress toward these traditionally lucrative careers. That means a heavy emphasis on tests and high grades.

“Parents need to learn how to let go,” says Hauer. “We need to empower kids to have more say in their future. They have to be more independent. They should be finding ways to teach themselves.”

Reform within the system

Taiwan’s education system as a whole also poses challenges, say reform-minded educators. Many worry that heavy testing requirements bog students down by forcing them to study subjects for which they have little interest.

Taiwan is planning education reforms that are to be introduced in the coming years aimed at addressing these concerns. National education authorities hope that the addition of more elective courses, more self-directed learning, and more hands-on coursework will give students a greater ability to follow their own academic interests. These authorities are also planning to change college entrance requirements to more heavily weight academic achievements made outside the testing hall.

However, observers warn that this top-down approach may have limited effect on actual classrooms. Guidelines are guidelines, but many parents and teachers maintain conservative attitudes toward education, and without enthusiastic support, these observers say curriculums and lesson plans may not change much in practice.

Hauer himself is optimistic about the prospect for reform, though, and he believes Taiwan Bar can help along an organic shift in attitudes among parents. “They are not blind,” he says. “They can see that the whole degree system is falling apart. They can see the old jobs are falling and the new jobs are being created.”

Still the best in Asia

Despite his many criticisms, Hauer still regards Taiwan’s education system as the best in Asia.

“In Japan, and Korea and China, it’s actually way more traditional,” he says, adding that students in those countries are facing similar pressures.

“We have to start from Taiwan now, and collectively build a demo for ‘this is how education in Asia should be done in the next 30 to 50 years,’” he says. “I think maybe Taiwan will become the beacon or the center for creative new education for Asia.”

Perhaps instigating a continent-wide educational reform movement is a bit of a tall order for a YouTube channel.

On the other hand, if breakneck “disruptive” innovation is indeed the biggest challenge to Taiwan’s education system, maybe the frenetic and constantly surprising online media environment that YouTube has fostered is exactly where we should be looking to find new ways to teach and new tools to inspire.

Additional reporting: Athena Yang
Editor: Edward White