Wednesday, March 12, 2014

World Science U: Brian Greene's online learning

Hours ago, I received a (mass?) e-mail from Brian Greene, string theorist and Columbia University professor who was and probably will also always be a co-founder of the World Science Festival and now is becoming a co-founder of the World Science U. The letter "U" is probably a cool New York nerds' slang for a university of a new kind.

Because it seems to me that Brian sent the message to his whole addressbook, it follows that he probably wants people to talk about the shining project, and I am just going to do so.

This video describes itself as "non-public". I wonder whether it makes any difference when I embed it.

In this introductory video, Brian Greene says that he didn't have the satisfactory feeling of a "full understanding" of special relativity in the college courses, something I found surprising given his extremely high IQ and achievements. He needed mental images. Well, sometimes the right images are completely non-visual. As an instructor at my Prague Alma Mater used to say, but I only appreciated the real wisdom of the quasi-joke later: the best picture is an equation.

At any rate, if the video or words have already convinced you that it is a project you can't resist, you should
register to World Science U (click).
It seems that some courses are already out there at WorldScienceU.COM.

You must try it because it looks pretty cool. For example, you click at "Science Unplugged" which is like a "preemptive" Physics Stack Exchange. You find your question and Brian Greene immediately gives you a 1-minute video answer. For example, you click at a question about "string theory" and Brian is already answering a question about "string theory". It may be a wrong question so you may choose another question about "string theory" in the list that already appeared beneath the video. Click at the question and Brian immediately begins to answer this question, too.

There are already hundreds of questions-and-answers to special relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, string theory, unification, big ideas, dark energy, basic physics, mathematics, multiverse, anthropic principle, parallel universes, Higgs particle, time, supersymmetry, general relativity, and perhaps other themes. You may also see the latest videos and featured videos.

Then there are short courses that should take 2-3 weeks. No homework, no work, no prerequisites, no expectation of mathematical skills, and no tuition. One just basically starts by being a lazy ignorant imbecile and Brian Greene pours the knowledge into his or her brain directly using some multimedia channels and for free – if I understand the modern technology well enough. ;-)

You must register for these courses. They include one on special relativity; general relativity; and foundations of quantum mechanics (with some non-standard titles optimized to make it sound popular).

At the bottom,, there are also links to longer, 8-10-week university courses in these three subjects. Equations should probably be incorporated there. So far, only the two (short and university) courses on special relativity are available for registration.

See several reactions to Brian's modern project in the mainstream media. Here is an example of a video from the bulk of a course which was mentioned in the Time Magazine a week ago.

What is relative about the speed? Brian Greene stands in front of a regular blackboard but has a special chalk. When it touches it the blackboard, the chalk automatically creates a red car moving on a warship (which innocent and peaceful Brian calls "a boat"). In this way, Brian may easily explain to you that to specify a speed, you need the reference frame.

Most people need the reference frame to learn anything else about physics as well but that's another issue. ;-)

I can't guarantee that the project will be a megasuccess but I do think that such new approaches to learning and teaching should spread. Many people are attending colleges because of the diplomas, however. I feel that for similar online universities to really supersede the stony ones, a system of grading, exams, and recognized degrees will have to be incorporated to the online universities. Of course, this is probably not an issue for cool popular lectures at this sort which – unless I misunderstand something – don't force you to develop the same expertise that is expected in stony colleges and grad schools. But maybe even at this popular level, some degrees could be useful.

Also, I am afraid that in the current form, the online university is even less "interactive" than the stony universities. I am talking about the feedback from real people. For the Internet to show its muscles, I think that a good online university should be more interactive and offering more feedback than the stony universities.


  1. That email looked so suspicious to me that I deleted it immediately. Good to hear that it's for real :-)

  2. PLATO was a pioneering CAI (Computer Assisted Instruction, today known as MOOC) system at U of Illinois, which featured teaching of Science -- incl Physics & Chemistry.

    "A staff of creative eccentrics, ranging from university professors to high school students [ University High School, across from CERL ], few of whom had any computer background, wrote the software.

    The PLATO Physics effort was led by Dr Bruce Sherwood (U of Chicago PhD Particle Physics, formerly with Caltech). I was at University High School ('70 - '75), where PLATO IV terminals were introduced ('72). This is the same HS that used the innovative HPP (Harvard Project Physics)

    "presented the material from a historical perspective with human interest wrapped into the text"

    [ much like how the TBT & Sheldon Cooper (based on "interesting personality" Lubos Motl) created a breakthrough in STEM Outreach to "lazy ignorant imbeciles", the #1 sitcom in USA drawing over 16 million viewers per week ]

    I bet that Brian Greene is unaware of the historical perspective of Physics & CAI. The initial MOOC effort (Udacity, Coursera..both Stanford origins) had low finishing rates, & they realized a more *inter-active* approach was needed (human-based TAs). Again, the human-interest factor is key.

    More info here:

  3. I think Brian Greene is awesome. I signed up.

  4. World of Science...? Why not, World of Physics? (which is what is in fact) It seems they don't want to scare people ;-)

    I have made some courses at Coursera, a couple of them about "R" (Johns Hopkins University), both excellent and pretty useful if your are looking for minimize the learning curve; and other about "climate change" (The University of Chicago), nonsensical, mostly indoctrinating and with a very very low level.

    In my opinion this kind of initiative are the future of the education at all levels, not detract from the actual classes that are essential for certain disciplines, especially in all experimental topics, but rather as a supplement for them, and an alternative for many people who for various reasons can not or don't want step on a actual college.

    I have to deepen more on this thing of Brian Greene, but in first approximation seems an evolution (or involution?) of "The Theoretical Minimum" of Leonard Susskind:

    I'll sign anyway and it will be featured in my blog too.

  5. This course management system is most important thing that every student have to develop. It’s because it will give them wide options to learn in just an efficient way and can have great degree in learning.