By Brian Burnsed

Students can visit YouTube for a mindless study break or a lengthy lecture on quantum mechanics

In 1995, University of California -- Berkeley computer science professor Lawrence Rowe began recording lectures and posting them as webcasts on the school's intranet for his students to view at their leisure outside of the classroom. As technology rapidly evolved, other professors on campus began to follow suit; 16 years later, students and curious minds worldwide have viewed the more than 1,000 lectures posted by the school nearly 5 million times via Berkeley's channel on YouTube EDU.

"We have the benefit of being a public institution with a mission of community service and outreach," says Benjamin Hubbard, who manages the school's webcasts. "Making the content publicly available perfectly aligns with that mission."

Berkeley is one of nearly 450 universities worldwide -- roughly 390 of which are in the U.S. and Canada -- that have established a channel via YouTube EDU. In total, the schools have uploaded 63,500 hours -- or about seven years -- worth of video content, ranging from class lectures to interactive question-and-answer "office hours" with professors.

Schools are required to post more than 20 videos to qualify for their own channel, and on average, schools have about 50 to 100 videos on the site, says YouTube EDU's manager Angela Lin. Some, like Berkeley, post thousands in hopes of reaching students far beyond the confines of their campus. In total, the service has nearly 1 million subscribers.

"The Berkeley's and [ Massachusetts Institute of Technology 's] of the world spearheaded the [webcast] movement long ago. Now YouTube has provided the platform for all universities," Lin says. "People think, 'YouTube' and they think entertainment, but there is an incredible amount of people coming to learn."

While demographic statistics show that the bulk of YouTube EDU users are adult learners, schools are increasingly trying to engage college students. Stanford University , for instance, offers online office hours from several professors during which they solicit and answer questions from students around the nation and world in recorded sessions.

The sessions aren't targeted at students on campus, says Brent Izutsu, senior program manager of Stanford's efforts with YouTube. " [Stanford students] are paying for personal interaction with faculty," he says. "It's mostly people from outside the university that get access to faculty, which they normally would not have."

The school is trying to recruit more professors to participate, which aligns with YouTube's mission to create more "stars" in the EDU channel who develop audiences that routinely return. Thus far, Lin says that Sal Khan, who started the nonprofit Khan Academy on YouTube in 2006, is the only education star. The Academy's online videos have drawn nearly 135,000 subscribers alone and offer instruction in a myriad of subjects and disciplines ranging from basic arithmetic to organic chemistry.

Beyond typical lectures and office hours, YouTube EDU also offers discussions of topics off the beaten path. Harvard University offers a lecture on how social networking influences celebrity and social status; Yale University has a speech relating Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice to the tenants of modern finance; and the University of Richmond has a lecture dubbed "The Poetry of Bob Dylan," to name a few.

The University of Texas -- Austin 's Cockrell School of Engineering has tried to fully engage its undergraduate students via YouTube, and Juan Garcia, the school's new media manager, hopes other departments in the 48,000-student institution will follow suit.

As part of the major YouTube initiatives at Cockrell, for instance, undergraduate nuclear engineering students are asked to make short films in which they creatively, and simply, explain complex concepts in their field. "The byproduct is that these engineers who are historically not great communicators, because that's not something they're taught as they go through these programs, will start learning to communicate, in three minutes, these complex thoughts and processes of engineering," Garcia says.

Another step colleges may soon take, Garcia says, will be to move beyond lectures or webcam office hours to make sophisticated -- and intriguing -- productions. For instance, Cockrell produced a video diagram of the Deepwater Horizon explosion that led to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last summer. Garcia is using his background in television production to make the engineering videos more captivating to any student who may stumble upon them online.

"It started the wheels spinning in people's minds about what those possibilities are," he says. "Not the same brown-bag seminar, one-camera style. We'll try to do these glossy, episodic productions."

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YouTube Goes to College