World Science University wants to teach you physics for free

John Timmer,



Science Unplugged

With online lectures, MOOCs, and open courseware, it's probably never been easier to get access to college-level instruction on a huge variety of topics. But yesterday saw the launch of a new entry dedicated to scientific concepts: the World Science University, launched by the group that runs the World Science Festival.

The WSU takes a somewhat different approach to things, offering two levels of courses in physics, depending on how interested you are in delving into the underlying math. It's also got what you might call a physics FAQ, with answers provided in video form. We've been playing with the beta version of the courses over the last few weeks, and we sat down with WSU founder and lecturer Brian Greene to talk about why they've decided now is the time to tackle online science education.
Launching a university

Greene said that he was motivated by his experiences with the World Science Festival and his TV programs. Audiences were clearly interested in the science, but there was really no place for them to follow up on the things that interested them—"you're never going to teach anybody real quantum theory in a 90 minute TV program." But he felt that there wouldn't be a big divide between interested novices and college physics students.

Separately, he'd been experimenting with remote lecturing since he first moved to Columbia in 1995 (he still had lecture responsibilities at Cornell at the time). "In 1990s, tech was really bad," Greene told Ars. "But the tech gradually got better, and we thought it was time for a rethink." Not all the tech was where he wanted it to be, however—Greene said that the video board he uses to handle diagrams and displays during his lectures was put together in-house and runs its own custom software.

The WSU material is split into what he called a "three layer experience." Science Unplugged material is the simplest, as it just involves Greene explaining a topic or answering the question in a short video, without visuals or a prepared script. Most of these are based on questions he's been asked in various contexts, although he's encouraging users to send in additional ones.

The next layer is what are termed short courses, comprised mostly of videos that Greene described as "about the level of a NOVA program—you don't have to know math." Rather than answering random questions, however, these are designed to provide a coherent view of a topic, introducing and explaining key concepts and then gradually building on them. Viewed in the proper order, Greene said, the videos build to a broader understanding: "These require a minimal commitment—they should take a few weeks—but will give you a deeper grasp than what you'd get in a NOVA program."

At the University level, these are supplemented with additional and more detailed material and interspersed with short quizzes. Each question comes with a detailed video answer of how to work it out. If a student makes it through, WSU will present them with a certificate of completion; do it while getting 75 percent of the quiz questions right, and you get a certificate of achievement (Greene says they're also considering adding a final exam).

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