Jan 1, 2010 | United Hemispheres
By Nokware Knight
“PUBLISH OR PERISH,” went the old admonition about success in academia. These days, “upload or downsize” might be more to the point. Although YouTube—with its clips of piano-playing cats and break-dancing babies—isn’t the most intellectual online destination, the site took a step toward changing that last March with the launch of YouTube EDU, a channel that organizes videos of educators and other heady content in one brainiac-friendly hub. The clips may not look like much—a professor, a blackboard, a laser pointer—but they’ve become wildly popular—and not just with class-skipping students. Thanks to YouTube EDU and similar sites (iTunes U, Academic Earth and Fora.tv among them), anyone able to click a mouse can now devour a Yale literature course without spending a dime on tuition.
“It’s quality stuff on the cheap,” says Harvard professor Niall Ferguson, who has dozens of talks on history and the economy floating around the net. His lectures, along with others from top-flight universities like UC Berkeley, Stanford, MIT and Yale, routinely rack up tens of thousands of views, along with some pretty eff usive comments. “Wow! I love her!” one viewer gushed of Berkeley prof Marian Diamond’s talk on functional anatomy.
“After watching a video of dog tricks, it’s nice to actually learn something,” notes Swarthmore College psychology professor Barry Schwartz, a veritable star of the genre, whose lectures have more in common with George Carlin’s biting social satire than the dry talks more typically heard in university classrooms.
“Ideas that challenge the way we commonly think” get viewers excited, says Peter Hopkins, president of Big Think, which produces videos with professors and other experts. Like TED.com, which posts clips of addresses given at the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, Big Think is part of a new wave of slick sites working the lecture circuit.
The most popular online talks—like Berkeley professor Richard Muller’s series on “Physics for Future Presidents,” which has had around a half-million views on YouTube—have certain common traits: uncanny comedic timing, social relevance and clever visual aids. Now if Muller can just teach a cat to play piano, he’ll really be on to something.