Brian Greene is the best college professor you never had—unless you’ve studied physics at Columbia University, that is. If that does describe you, and you have sat in a Greene-taught class, you’re not likely to have forgotten the experience.
For the far, far larger number of people who are not part of that rarefied group, it will soon be possible to study with Greene anyway. On March 6, his online classroom series—ambitiously titled the World Science U (WSU)—goes live. And if the name seems like something of a reach, early samples of the course material suggest that he may indeed have the stuff to deliver what he promises.
The traditional model for the college course—instructor in the front, students in the seats, while lecture is presented and notes are taken—is a little like the famous description of democracy as a form of government: it’s the worst system imaginable, except for all of the others that have ever been tried. Independent study will never have the accountability a supervised class does. Correspondence courses never had the exchange of ideas that a classroom offers. The answer, in recent years, was supposed to be MOOCs—massive open online courses.
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As the name suggests, the web-based MOOC is open to anyone—though fees, if they are charged at all, may be waived for students of the university sponsoring the courses. The “massive” part is not an exaggeration; the number of people who can log onto a course is limited only by the bandwidth of the server, and with any tests that are given scored by computer, the whole world can be the lecture hall.
But MOOCs have problems, not the least being student followthrough. A recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and sponsored by the Gates Foundation looked at 1 million MOOC students across dozens of courses and found enormous attrition rates, with, for example, 140,000 quizzes taken and submitted after the first lecture in one surveyed course, and only 20,000 after the last lecture. A survey of 16 different courses found online attendance rates as low as 2% by the end of the curriculum.
Those numbers, however, aren’t quite as bleak as they seem, as an analysis published in The Atlantic in January showed. A significant share of people who enroll in MOOCs have no intention of sticking with them to the end. Often they’re people who know much of the material already and are simply dipping in for a refresher; alternatively, they might be new to the topic and are sampling, say, what a geology course is like before deciding if they want to make it their field of study.
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But that wasn’t the case made for MOOCs by those who believe they can change the nature of education, and no one pretends that there’s any way to spin single-digit completion numbers as an unalloyed good thing. Enter Greene and his WSU.
Known widely for his best-selling books, including The Elegant Universe and Icarus at the Edge of Time, as well as the related PBS specials, Greene is also the founder of the World Science Festival, held each year in New York City. He propelled himself from the classroom to the bookstores to PBS gold mostly through the energy he projects as he teaches and the imagery he sprinkles through his course material. His specialty is string theory and theoretical physics, topics that can turn to lead in the wrong hands but come to life in the right ones—and Greene manages them artfully.
He has divided his free-of-charge WSU curriculum into three levels: quick, 30- to 90-second videos that explain a single narrow concept in physics (he has recorded a remarkable 500 of these); two- to three-week courses that involve no homework and—to the delight of more people than would admit it—no math; and longer, in-depth, college-level courses, stuffed with all of the equations it takes to master the material in a truly academic way. He also includes what he calls “Office Hours,” giving real students the opportunity to ask the virtual Greene any questions that come up in the course of a lecture. After 18 years of teaching, he knows what the most frequently asked of those questions are likely to be.
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The lectures, which were recorded over weeks and months in a brick-walled studio that has the appealingly casual look of the early MSNBC or the current CNN morning program, go heavy on the graphics, animation and touch-screen technology. Watching the videos (and, full disclosure, TIME has sampled only a handful of them, and none of them involved equations, thank you very much) has the odd effect of making physics seem like a guilty pleasure—something that, surely, one of the most head-crackingly difficult of the sciences has rarely been called. But if you like this stuff—and a lot of people do, or books like Greene’s and Stephen Hawking’s wouldn’t sell the way they do—there is a compulsive watchability to what Greene has done.
It’s impossible to know if the WSU is a viable model for future MOOCs to follow. Until the site actually launches and has a year or two to run, there will be no data available on how long students actually stick with the courses, and it will be harder still to determine how much they actually learn and retain. Greene reports that his Columbia students who use the WSU videos as a sort of textbook for his classroom course score higher on tests than other students do, but that’s a small sample group in a decidedly non-double blind study. What’s more, not every university—to say nothing of every department in every university—has a communicator like Greene teaching its material, anymore than they all have a Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or the Carl Sagan who came before them both.
But that’s nothing new. The gifted science communicator has always been harder to come by than the science. Greene, undeniably, is one of that rare breed. In his new venture, he makes that fact lyrically evident.
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