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The Lecture Circuit

With the help of websites like YouTube EDU and iTunes U, a world-class education is available to anyone with computer access. Best of all, it's free.

Author Nokware Knight Illustration Peter Oumanski

“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.

NOKWARE KNIGHT was educated the old-fashioned way: with books.


What else to watch on the go in January

Prom Night in Mississippi

Prom at Mississippi’s Charleston High was a racially segregated affair until Morgan Freeman showed up with a proposal: Integrate and he’d foot the bill. A revealing documentary looks at what happened next. On DVD January 26


Like Hulu for kids, Jaroo.com offers hundreds of episodes of hard-to-find cartoons—think “Inspector Gadget,” “The Legend of Zelda” and “Madeline”—in a kid-friendly, kid-safe environment. And yes, adults can watch too.

The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special — In 3-D! On Ice!

It’s been two decades since The Simpsons hit airwaves, and Fox celebrates with this Morgan Spurlock documentary, which goes behind the scenes with America’s most lovably dysfunctional four-fingered family. Airs January 10

One Response to “The Lecture Circuit”

  1. Supra Shoes Says:
    September 10th, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    As the proverb says that you are never too old to learn. Keeping reading all the way can enrich our leisure. Work more hard, your dream will come true more faster.

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