At a time when companies and universities that run massive open online courses are struggling to prove their value, Columbia University professor and physicist Brian Greene thinks he has a new and potentially more effective way to teach students online: World Science U, a science education platform that offers everything from two-minute educational videos to full-fledged university-level classes.
Greene knows a little something about creating science content that's understandable to the masses. In addition to his teaching at Columbia, he is the co-founder of the annual World Science Festival, a host of Nova science documentaries, and author of a number of popular books that explain abstract physics theories to average readers. Instead of using the Internet as a new delivery vehicle for old-fashioned teaching (as many other MOOCs do), Greene explains that his new platform "turns abstract ideas into interactives that people can play with."
There are three layers of classes on World Science U: Explainers that last a couple minutes, short two- or three- week seminars, and 10-week university courses. The short courses are truncated versions of the university-level classes, which include video lectures, office-hour modules (the professor answers commonly asked questions via pre-taped video), interactive demonstrations of concepts, animations, and test exercises.
Greene is teaching the first two classes, which deal with Einstein’s theories of relativity. He's currently in talks with other professors to teach additional courses (next up: quantum mechanics).
While the courses are designed for people to follow along at home, Greene envisions them as teaching aids for both high school teachers and college professors. Before launching the platform publicly, he spent six months teaching a course on special relativity at Columbia using only World Science U materials. Instead of attending classroom lectures, students learned the material on their own and met with Greene every week.
"I have to say, it's the most fun I've ever had teaching," he says. "It's asking a lot of a students to learn an idea, scribble in a notebook, and five seconds later have deep questions. In this version, students are thinking [questions] through at home with me as a digital guide."
While World Science U's video modules bear more than a passing resemblance to the online classes offered on sites like Coursera and edX, Greene doesn't consider them to be similar at all. "The intent of MOOCs, even by virtue of the name itself—starting with an 'm', which stands for 'massive'—is to bring education to a massive audience," he notes. "Our focus is not on the massive—it's on quality and innovation, even if it's a smaller audience we reach but with a more carefully thought-through set of materials that uses the digital space to create something the student doesn't get in a classroom."
But like many of the new education experiments out there, World Science U still has to figure out a revenue model. All classes are free for now, though Greene is exploring various ways to raise money, possibly from foundations or a premium model that gives students the option to pay for an official certificate of completion. "All are interesting, and I'm glad people are exploring them. We're going to figure out our own trajectory," he says.