Poor MOOCs, they’ve taken a bit of a beating over the last year with many predicting their failure. The final verdict may be some time coming in, there is a way to go until we can reasonably measure the success or failure of MOOCS to democratize education and bring high quality online learning to the masses. Despite the recent backlash more MOOCs are being developed and I, for one, am a fan.
In March this year a major new online learning platform for Physics launched. The brainchild of co-founders Tracy Day and Columbia Science Professor Brian Greene World Science U puts interactive science education at everyone’s finger tips. From novices to college students to lifelong learners if you’re interested in Physics there is something here for everyone, all delivered in a very slick, interactive digital platform. The co-founders have unashamedly pinned their flag to the MOOCs mast; World Science U wants to reinvigorate science education, to release it from the suggested “boring” talk and chalk of the traditional classroom and breathe new understanding into highly complex subjects such as Quantum Physics and Relativity. We may all know E=MC2 but what does it actually mean? Through the use of animations and interactive content World Science U wants to help you understand. By “making the abstract visual”, they hope to turn everyone on to Physics. For free. What’s not to love!
Given the challenging content that’s a big ask but with the focus on visual learning and building knowledge from the ground up with three distinct knowledge layers offering differing depths of learning, it’s going in the right direction. For high potential students it is particularly useful as it allows the learner to dig as deep as they wish, often difficult to achieve in a classroom of mixed abilities. Independent learners can happily go off piste in this explorative, interactive learning environment. Aided by a visual archive of short Q&As, students can explore the basics before they dive into more detailed course content which includes a series of problems and exercises with full video solutions. So far, so Khan but much of World Science U is based on Brian Greene’s personality and presentation style. He is a well known scientist in the US and has a media profile similar to Britain’s Brian Cox. Given his background in TV science programming and the fact that both he and his co-founder have been Emmy nominated the production values are consistently high. Some content feels like bite sized Discovery Channel documentaries – not necessarily a bad thing.
When you log on you are met with three distinct learning levels, beginning with “Science Unplugged”, an area populated with a host of short videos presented by Brian Greene answering questions in areas such as string theory, relativity and dark matter. The focus here is on Physics and Maths, Greene’s bag. Questions can be as basic as “What is Math?” to “Why do quantum mechanics and general relativity conflict with each other?” This is a nice, useful section, very easy to navigate. The tone of the videos is true to its anti-chalk and talk approach with Green adopting a conversational tone. This isn’t a lecture. It feels like he’s answering a question the viewer has just put to him. Does it make it more engaging? You certainly do get a sense of his passion for the subject and that in itself is engaging.
The second learning level comprises of short 2 to 3 week courses (3 hours per week for 3 weeks is a guideline) requiring no formal training in Maths or Physics. At present there is only one available on the site “Space, Time and Einstein- A Conceptual Tour of Special Relativity with Brian Greene” although there are two more in development: “Warps and Curves” and “Invisible Reality”.
Finally, the third level is for those who want to go deeper into the subject with University level courses for a duration of 7 to 8 weeks (3 hours per week for 10 weeks a guideline). This is where you need your Maths boots firmly strapped on, as you are immersed in a world of equations and mind blowing calculus. Again only one course is currently available, “Special Relativity” but two more are in the pipeline, “General Relativity” and “Quantum Mechanics”. Certification is available for these courses but users can opt out of the certification process.
So how can a teacher use World Science U? According to Greene:
“On the one hand, a teacher in a classroom can use these materials as a kind of digital textbook, if you will, where they can have students go through the standard material that they would have assigned, but now the experience is much richer. … It’s a textbook come to life,” he said. “The other way that I envision it being used is for the person who doesn’t have access to a university classroom, who isn’t enrolled in a college or university for whatever reason. … They will be able to jump into fascinating material on their own with someone who is taking them by the hand the whole way through.”
It’s all too easy to be a bit “sniffy” about MOOCs, particularly in light of the recent backlash, but they can work well in the blended classroom. There is no doubt that the human element matters in education, the teacher/student relationship is key and we forget that at our peril. However, for those students with a love of learning and with a keen desire to dig deeper into subjects MOOCs such as World Science U are a bonus.