New Course, Taught Through Videos, Crosses Disciplines

A new class offered concurrently this fall at three colleges including Harvard and Yale will feature academics from across the country teaching what course organizers bill as some of the world's most important ideas.

The course, which is offered at Harvard as Freshman Seminar 27e: "Big Ideas," will also be offered to freshmen at Bard College and students at Yale.

Instead of instructors lecturing at chalkboards, the seminar will consist of videos with academics exploring a particular concept from a discipline, from linguistics to statistics, finance to the classics. Interspersed between the videos are essays, readings, and class discussions.

Professor Douglas A. Melton and Professor Nicholas A. Christakis, two of the academics participating in the video lecture series, will lead the course at Harvard.

The class is the product of a joint venture between Peter L. Hopkins ’04 of BigThink and Adam Glick of the Jack Parker Corporation. Together, the two created “The Floating University,” which aims to create courses online like its first course “Great Big Ideas."

“It’s a textbook that has all the pieces of new media,” Hopkins said about the course.

One of the goals of Great Big Ideas, Hopkins said, is to expose new students to as many different areas of knowledge as possible, helping them connect relevant ideas from multiple disciplines and guiding them in their own decisions about future academic paths.

“This is not a substitute for learning on campus,” Hopkins, a former Crimson editor, said. “It’s about saying, ‘What is the way to maximize that?’”

Melton said he hopes that the course will give freshmen exposure to a variety of possible academic fields, including ones they never considered pursuing as a course of study.

“Why would Harvard freshmen need a survey course like this?” he asked. “Many people assume that freshmen come into college knowing exactly what they want to study, but that may not be the case. Maybe they haven’t been exposed to poetry, or molecular biology. It will be nice to have a person who knows about the field give a one-hour lecture, exposing students to the main questions in the field, and how you go about answering them.”

With approximately 30 students, the class will be double the size of a typical freshman seminar class. To facilitate discussion, the students will break up into two groups, each led by one of the seminar professors, to discuss the lecture after watching it in the larger group each week.

As it is the first year the course is offered, the class structure is not set in stone.

“We may also experiment with other formats, and get student input into how best to take advantage of class time and of electronic media for pedagogic purposes,” Christakis said in an email. “We feel that new technologies offer new opportunities for teaching.”

Besides Melton and Christakis, three other Harvard affiliates will be making appearances in the video lectures: research associate Rebecca N. Goldstein, whose lecture discusses epistemology; Professor Steven A. Pinker, who will explore the function of linguistics in understanding brain function; and former University President Lawrence H. Summers, discussing the role of knowledge in education.

“This is a course for everybody,” Hopkins said. “To do one thing well, you need to be able to connect the dots between disciplines, see the big picture, and understand how seemingly different concepts relate to each other. You need to have a diverse toolkit to confront challenges that are out there.”

Hopkins hopes to expand the program to other colleges after this fall’s pilot program. In addition, the lectures will be available to the public by subscription, with certain portions for free.

“Ultimately, we hope we can demonstrate a model that allows the best education to come to as many people as possible, made better through the use of technology, human contact, and the power of exchange,” he said.

—Staff writer Leanna B. Ehrlich can be reached at lehrlich@college.harvard.edu.

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