Top 10 YouTube Videos Posted by Colleges, and What They Mean

More than 400 colleges and universities have set up channels on YouTube as part of the YouTube EDU section of the popular video site, but university officials admit they are still experimenting with the service and learning what types of videos resonate with off-campus audiences.

With data provided by YouTube, The Chronicle has determined the 10 most popular videos on YouTube EDU of the 2010-11 academic year (from June 2010 to June 2011). Some college officials stress that popularity is not always their main goal—because many colleges upload lectures and study materials designed for those enrolled in the courses. Still, the list gives a sense of the variety of videos colleges post and their impact.

Star-studded commencement speeches seem to be the best way for colleges to draw viewers. Four graduation videos made it onto the top-10 list, and three of the four featured high-profile celebrity speakers: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and Conan O’Brien. According to YouTube officials, searches on the site for the phrase “commencement speech” have increased eightfold since 2008.

But the biggest hit of the year focused on a graduating student rather than a star speaker. UC Berkeley’s video, “Paralyzed student, Austin Whitney, walks at graduation,” topped the list, with over 471,000 views. The clip shows Mr. Whitney, a graduating senior who was paralyzed from the waist down before entering college, walking to receive his diploma, aided by a mechanized exoskeleton that UC Berkeley engineers designed for him.

Robotics videos were also crowd pleasers this year. The University of Pennsylvania’s baseball-pitching machine earned it a spot in the top 10, and the University of Chicago made it on the list twice for gadget-themed clips. The first, the “Universal Gripper,” displays a device researchers developed that can grip and move nearly any object regardless of shape or size. The other video investigates how the mechanized book-retrieval system in the university’s newly constructed library works. Jeremy Manier, the university’s news director, attributed the library video’s success to the fact that it could engage several Web communities: those concerned with libraries and the future of print; architecture enthusiasts; and techies. “It tells a good story and it’s got robots,” he said, adding jocularly that “robots rule the Internet.”

No traditional lectures made the list. The closest thing to a lecture is an MIT physics “module”—a 20-minute explanatory video by Walter H.G. Lewin, a professor of physics at the institute. It explains the physics behind a familiar dilemma: Which will make you more wet, walking or running in the rain?

Other academic lectures have proven quite popular, though: A Harvard University lecture series on the philosophy of justice has accumulated more than 1.6 million views since it was uploaded in September 2009.

Although other individual lectures may not receive a high number of hits, a growing number of colleges are posting them. Some universities, such as UC Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT, have begun posting all of the recorded lectures from selected courses, allowing viewers from around the world to tune in and see what goes on in their classrooms. By broadcasting their lectures, they “broaden the window of access” to their resources, said Ben Hubbard, the manager of UC Berkeley’s YouTube EDU channel. Through feedback from students and spikes in viewership during midterms and exams, Mr. Hubbard has inferred that the channel is actually being used as a study tool. However, he said, “We know that we haven’t had just students logging in 120 million times. We know we’re serving the public.”

It can be difficult to determine the factors that lead a college video to go viral, and many college-news offices and technology departments are still experimenting with ways to take full advantage of their presence on YouTube. Angela Y. Lin, EDU’s manager at YouTube, says the service provides “resources for all of our partners regarding how to optimize their channels,” including statistics on user views, as well as suggestions such as adding metadata, creating playlists, and tagging keywords.

But the success of a video is ultimately determined by the whims of The Crowd. “There is a certain mystery or alchemy about what captures the public’s minds,” said Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesman. “There are common themes and variables that can increase the chance of something becoming popular, but it’s not a simple formula.”

Since it was unveiled in 2009, over 125,000 videos have been posted to YouTube EDU, according to figures supplied by YouTube, totaling more than 63,500 hours of video—approximately seven years of screen time.

Top 10 Most Viewed YouTube EDU Videos of 2010-11

1. Paralyzed student, Austin Whitney, walks at graduation–UC Berkeley, roughly 471,000 views

2. 2011 Commencement Address by Denzel Washington–University of Pennsylvania, 345,000 views

3. Conan O’Brien Delivers Dartmouth’s Commencement Address–Dartmouth University, 297,000 views

4. Universal Gripper–University of Chicago, 195,000 views

5. The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library: How It Works–University of Chicago, 138,000 views

6. Module 02_01 | MIT 8.01SC Physics I: Classical Mechanics, Fall 2010–MIT, 121,000 views

7. The Dalai Lama Talks About Compassion, Respect–Stanford University, 118,000 views

8. PhillieBot Robot Gives First Pitch at a Phillies Game–University of Pennsylvania, 111,000 views

9. Tom Hanks Addresses the Yale Class of 2011–Yale University, 104,000 views

10. New Way To Faster, Cheaper Wireless–Stanford University, 67,000 views

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