Monday, January 14, 2008

E-learning? YouTube

Thanks to YouTube, Professors Are Finding New Audiences

Forget Lonelygirl15, YouTube's 2006 online video phenom. Professors are the latest YouTube stars. The popularity of their appearances on YouTube and other video-sharing sites may end up opening up the classroom and making teaching—which once took place behind closed doors—a more public art.

What's more, Web video opens a new form of public intellectualism to scholars looking to participate in an increasingly visual culture.

One Web site that opened this week, Big Think, hopes to be "a YouTube for ideas." The site offers interviews with academics, authors, politicians, and other thinkers. Most of the subjects are filmed in front of a plain white background, and the interviews are chopped into bite-sized pieces of just a few minutes each. The short clips could have been served up as text quotes, but Victoria R. M. Brown, co-founder of Big Think, says video is more engaging. "People like to learn and be informed of things by looking and watching and learning," she says.

YouTube itself wants to be a venue for academe. In the past few months, several colleges have signed agreements with the site to set up official "channels." The University of California at Berkeley was the first, and the University of Southern California, the University of New South Wales, in Australia, and Vanderbilt University soon followed.

It remains an open question just how large the audience for talking eggheads is, though. After all, in the early days of television, many academics hoped to use the medium to beam courses to living rooms, with series like CBS's Sunrise Semester. which began in 1957. Those efforts are now a distant memory.

Things may be different now, though, since the Internet offers a chance to connect people with the professors and topics that most interest them.

Even YouTube was surprised by how popular the colleges' content has been, according to Adam Hochman, a product manager at Berkeley's Learning Systems Group. Lectures are long, after all, while most popular YouTube videos run just a few minutes. (Lonelygirl, the diary of a teenage girl, had episodes that finished in well under a minute. Many other popular shorts involve cute animals or juvenile stunts). Yet some lectures on Berkeley's channel scored 100,000 viewers each, and people were sitting through the whole talks. "Professors in a sense are rock stars," Mr. Hochman concludes. "We're getting as many hits as you would find with some of the big media players."

YouTube officials insist that they weren't surprised by the buzz, and they say that more colleges are coming forward. "We expect that education will be a vibrant category on YouTube," said Obadiah Greenberg, strategic partner manager at YouTube, in an e-mail interview. "Everybody loves to learn."

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