Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Innovative online courses from World Science University

I have claimed that we would see innovation in educational pedagogy and technology as a result of the feasibility and interest in MOOCs and modular courseware.

Well, I just saw a post by Lauren Weinstein in which he linked to a good example, World Science University (WSU). So far, there is not much there, but what is, is indeed innovative. I've watched part of a course on special relativity and here are some of the innovations.

There are three levels of granularity. The first level is like an FAQ on the topic. The teacher, PBS Nova host Brian Greene, poses questions then answers them. The second level is a no-math short course -- eight or nine hours of self-paced material with no math or homework. The third level is an 8-10 week college-level course with math.


Greene uses a TV-like lecture style. He is not a talking head or a voice behind a screen presentation, but an animated lecturer moving around on a stage -- like a TED talk. The lectures are tightly scripted, shot with multiple cameras and edited like polished TV video.


The user interface features a five-dimension timeline, showing the video lectures, demonstrations, (threaded) discussion, office hours and reviews. It is displayed below the video and can be toggled on and off.


Greene uses two large interactive displays. He can write and draw on the displays -- as one would on a whiteboard. He also uses them to display animations and to interact with programmed demonstrations and simulations.


The lecture segments are interspersed with review videos. In addition to multiple choice questions, the review might have Greene asking, then answering, a significant question or giving a summary of the previous video lecture.

The students can run the demonstrations themselves. For example, during a lecture on experiments to demonstrate that the speed of light is constant, Greene interacts with a binary star simulation. After watching Greene run the simulation, the student can link to and run it themselves.


I've only watched part of one course -- a short course on special relativity -- and found it impressive. It was a better learning experience than sitting back and watching a Nova program, but just as accessible.

So far, WSU has produced hundreds of answers to "FAQ" questions, three physics short courses and three university level physics courses. They are working on biology.

But, can it scale? The production cost and quality are high. (Some of the animations I saw were repurposed from Greene's PBS Nova production "The Fabric of the Cosmos"). Greene is an experienced, dynamic lecturer and author -- can they find other lecturers as good as he is? WSU is a .com -- do they have a viable business model?

Well, I for one hope it scales and prospers -- the course I've been taking is terrific.

Here is Greene's preliminary description of WSU:

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