Cool for school: Education is a big hit on YouTube

crashcourse john green

Dancing babies, cute kittens and . . . quantum physics? Science may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you are thinking about YouTube, but the video site has seen a boom of educational content. YouTube is expected to announce on Wednesday that views of educational videos have doubled on its site in 2011, with close to 80 percent of these views coming from outside the U.S.

A significant part of this has been driven by the smashing success of the Khan Academy. Salman Khan’s no-frills biology, calculus and physics lessons have clocked close to 120 million views on YouTube since he started uploading them in 2006. However, there is a growing movement toward more entertaining and visually appealing lessons that speak the language of the YouTube generation.

The most recent examples for this type of programming include some projects launched in January as part of YouTube’s new channel initiative: Crash Course, for example, combines lessons about biology and world history with smart humor, a YouTube-typical in-your-face style of narration and professionally animated graphics.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yocja_N5s1I]

Crash Course is a co-production of Hank and John Green, of Vlogbrothers fame. The channel launched just days ago, and the duo have already managed to get around 275,000 views with little more than two lessons posted. John Green told me during a phone conversation this week that he has been very excited about this initial success: “It really stabs in the heart the lie that YouTube is about cat videos,” he said.

The Vlogbrothers are among dozens of content makers that have been receiving sizable advances from YouTube to professionally produce content. Reports put the total spent by Google for this kind of content north of $100 million. That money buys YouTube participation from stars like Rainn Wilson and Tony Hawk, but the initiative also includes around a dozen channels with news and educational content.

Many of these channels are part of YouTube for Schools, a program launched last month that offers educational institutions access to a controlled YouTube environment to ensure that students don’t goof off watching the latest music videos. Green told me that he has already received “dozens of emails” from students who were introduced to his new show by their teacher. “People are already watching Crash Course in classrooms,” he said.

But with great power comes great responsibility; in this case, there is a duty to get the facts right. Green has been using a real-life educator to make sure that he doesn’t get his history dates mixed up. Fact-checking is absolutely necessary for this kind of content, he told me, admitting, “I don’t trust myself.”

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