YouTube has built a global reputation as the place to go for video clips of singing cats, laughing babies, reckless drivers, and raucous wedding processionals. But there's more to the site than pointless entertainment; there is a growing collection of university lectures available, including one by a Harvard Business School professor talking about consumer psychology in the recession, and Cambridge University historian David Starkey discussing the history of the British monarchy. Earlier this year YouTube launched a new home for education, YouTube EDU, which started as a volunteer project by company employees seeking a better way to aggregate educational content uploaded by U.S. colleges and universities. Last month the subsite went international, with 45 universities in Europe and Israel adding their content to the stream. "Around the world people can, from the comfort of their home, refresh their knowledge on a subject or explore other topics to better themselves intellectually," says YouTube EDU's Obadiah Greenberg. "I think that is rather profound."
One need not be a student to reap the benefits of higher education anymore. In addition to YouTube EDU, Web sites like iTunes U, TED, and Academic Earth allow millions of people to download lectures by some of the world's top experts—for free. Known as open educational resources—or OER—the movement is turning education into a form of mass entertainment. "There is a real appetite for content that is not just a sneezing-cat video," says Peter Bradwell, a researcher for the British academic think tank Demos. "There is a growing desire for intellectually stimulating material that is easily accessible." MIT's OpenCourseWare (OCW) offers free access to most of the school's course material and lectures on subjects like Anglo-American folk music and the behavior of algorithms. iTunes U provides free lectures, discussions, and conferences from schools like Oxford, Yale, and the French business institute HEC Paris. "The beauty of this platform is that it brings your material to a much wider audience," says Carolyn Culver, head of strategic communications for Oxford.
The democratization of higher education started in the 1990s when universities began looking to the Web to market their intellectual resources. In 1999, Germany's University of Tübingen became the first institution of higher learning to offer free lectures on the Web, and in 2002, MIT launched its OCW site. Now nearly 45 percent of visitors to the MIT site are what the school calls "self-learners." Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon computer scientist who died of cancer last year, tapped into this trend and became a Web star after he videotaped his final lecture, about achieving childhood dreams. To date, "The Last Lecture" has received 10.5 million hits.
Not everyone is convinced that the biggest consumers of online educational materials are motivated—or even bored—self-learners. "The idea that you are sitting in on a Saturday evening with nothing to do and you randomly come across a quantum-physics YouTube video and watch it, well, this is not happening," says Francesc Pedro, senior analyst of the OECD's Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. The applications, he says, are actually much wider ranging: "Imagine what a treasure trove this is for a college teacher in Africa or a student in a developing country in Asia who can access good materials from prestigious universities at their fingertips."
Whoever is using OER, the numbers keep growing. MIT's site now gets more than 1.2 million visitors a month. Oxford's iTunes material has surpassed a million uploads and has consistently had 10 podcasts in the global top 100. Oxford philosophy professor Marianne Talbot—whose "Romp Through the History of Philosophy" became a No. 1 iTunes U hit—and UC Berkeley biology professor Marian Diamond have become Web darlings like Pausch. But maybe not quite on a par with Oscar the talking boxer dog.