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Exploding elements, tax returns and cat physics are among the mysteries being explained on YouTube
Afew weeks ago, a man called Colin posted a video to YouTube he had created at home, without much money or expertise, in which he attempted to explain the American debt limit. The fourminute clip uses crude animation and commentary to outline the odd economic relationship between the President and Congress. It could have been dull, amateurish - a waste of bandwidth. Yet it has been praised by economists and viewed well over a million times.
Such success has become routine for Colin, known online as CGP Grey, as well as a rapidly growing league of educators using a new kind of classroom to explain complicated things. A site still dominated by music videos and the exploits of cats is getting smart as would-be teachers and leading academics pick apart the mysteries of the cosmos, summarise revolutions and explain what would happen if everyone in the world jumped at the same time.
Their grand project has taken off in the past year, making us smarter and delivering a new legitimacy to YouTube, where users now upload 72 hours of not always edifying video every minute. Thus the site, which is owned by Google, has embraced the growth, heavily promoting educational content, which has scored a doubling in views in the past year.
Grey's project started in 2010 and took off with his third video, a wry explanation of the difference between the UK, Great Britain and England. The five-minute geography lesson went viral and has now been viewed more than 3. 5 million times. Since then, 50 or so videos recording more than 40 million hits have tackled topics as varied as US politics and the correct pronunciation of Uranus.
This sounds like bad news for teachers, Grey said, but, whether or not his bold utopia is ever realised, the most enlightened academics, and the teachers they appear to be undermining, are discovering that online videos are a tool rather than a threat.
Prof Martyn Poliakoff is a world-leading chemist whose passion for teaching predates the internet. His research and lectures at the University of Nottingham, which he joined in 1979, have won him academic renown, but the 65-year-old is now achieving global celebrity and audience figures that would be the envy of his little brother, Stephen, the screenwriter and director.
Poliakoff is the star of The Periodic Table of Videos, which started in 2008 as a modest project to make a short film about each of the elements in the periodic table. His unscripted and engaging delivery, mad-professor hair and fondness for pyrotechnics gave the videos instant appeal, helping to elevate a subject that struggled to seem sexy.
With filmmaker Brady Haran, Poliakoff and his team have now made more than 450 films that cover topics beyond the elements. Their YouTube channel boasts more than 35 million views. Fans of various ages and nationalities include teachers, many of whom play the professor's films in the classroom, as well as Nobel Prize winners.
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