A Sample Platter of Knowledge

Some days I really love my job. One of those days was when I discovered “Great Big Ideas,” the first course produced by the Floating University, an online for-profit college.

Great Big Ideas” (GBI) is an inexpensive but polished course consisting of twelve lecture videos featuring all-star professors from prestigious colleges, like Harvard’s Steven Pinker, Columbia’s Joel Cohen, and Yale’s Paul Bloom, as well as William Ackman, the manager of a hedge-fund. GBI has been used as material for discussions in undergraduate seminars at Harvard, Yale, and Bard College, and ads around the internet tout it as “Harvard’s most popular course.”

GBI employs a relatively new approach to education—online videos available to both students and the public —to make the case for studying very old ideas such as Aristotle’s thoughts on virtue. And it’s making the case for studying them in an old way: through lectures, reading, and reflection.

Great Big Ideas was produced as a joint venture between New York City real estate developer Adam Glick and the Big Think forum, an online for-profit company that produces educational materials. Glick observed that some of his employees, although they had studied at elite institutions, were trained too narrowly and were inflexible in their approaches to problem solving. The solution Glick came up with, Great Big Ideas, is an academic sample platter.

Peter Hopkins, founder of the Floating University, the online platform for GBI and other potential courses, said that, when creating the course, the firm approached each lecturer with a challenge: “Tell us everything a non-professional needs to know about your subject in less than 60 minutes.” Hopkins was surprised that many younger professors scoffed at the idea, while more senior academics decided to give it a try.

Hopkins claims that the resulting lectures are “like reading a 600-page book in one hour.” Excellent as the lectures are, I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

A 600-page introductory text on biology, for instance, would have included the history of the discovery of the cell, and a detailed description of photosynthesis. The lecture on biology by Harvard biologist Douglas Melton’s introduces some basic concepts, such as what stem cells are, and a current hot topic, regenerative medicine, in which stem cells play a key role. Good material, but many of biology’s “great big ideas” are left out.

Among the other “Big Ideas” is political philosophy, taught by Yale professor Tamar Gendler. Gendler was a graduate student under the prominent philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick, and her lecture uses the debate between them to illustrate the conflict between analyzing justice from the view of society as a whole and the view of the individual within that society.

In other videos, professors spent the entire time arguing one particular point. Bard College president Leon Botstein, for example, argued for the importance of studying and appreciating art, rather than attempting to summarize art history in one hour; Yale’s dean of admissions Jeffrey Brenzel argued for studying the classics of literature; Harvard’s former president and current professor Lawrence Summers made the case for studying ideas in general.

The Great Big Ideas course represents a step toward solving several problems in higher education—high cost, limited access, and narrowness of focus. It enables just about anyone to cheaply and quickly broaden his or her understanding by spending time (virtually, anyway) with professors who usually teach only a small number of students in our most exclusive schools.

One problem it doesn’t quite solve, though, is bias in the classroom.  Political bias was limited (one might argue that John Locke didn’t get enough time in Tamar Gendler’s lecture on political philosophy, but it was only an hour long), but there were a couple of instances where ideas were presented unfairly with regard to Christianity.

For example, in his lecture on physics (which focused largely on string theory), CUNY physics professor Michio Kaku presented the idea of multiple universes as generally accepted by physicists when in reality it is not. The idea of multiple universes (the “multi-verse”) has been used by leading atheists as a way of explaining the apparently arbitrary fine-tuning of physical laws in our own universe that make life possible. Christian apologists have presented the apparent fine-tuning as evidence for the existence of God. But if there are infinite universes, it becomes more plausible that one of them would by chance have the precisely correct rate of gravitational acceleration, the correct nuclear force, etc., necessary for life.

In reality, the multi-verse idea is highly controversial in the physics community, and not just along religious-nonreligious lines. In an email to the Pope Center, Columbia mathematician Peter Woit (who is not religious) wrote that opinion on the multi-verse ranges “from belief that it’s out-right pseudo-science (my opinion), to belief that it’s an unavoidable implication of some popular speculative ideas like string theory.” Woit praised professor Kaku as a “great popularizer,” but said that he is significantly out of the mainstream on some of his views on string theory.

The Big Ideas course appears to be fairly popular, although hard data aren’t available. Big Think president Peter Hopkins declined to give precise figures but said sales outside of the universities where Great Big Ideas has been used as course material have been “robust.” Meanwhile, the price has dropped from just under $500 when it launched last fall to under $100 (at least during occasional sales).

A Yale Daily News story in January said GBI was losing steam among undergraduates at the schools where it was taught. Neither Bard nor Harvard taught it this spring. Hopkins responds that the colleges had not planned to teach it in the spring anyway, and they are still planning on teaching it a second time this fall.

The leadership at Big Think believes that their GBI formula—lectures by highly respected specialists—is a winning one. In mid-March, Big Think launched Big Think Edge, which features hour-long videos and big-name experts in different fields (mostly within business, though) such as entrepreneurs Richard Branson and Peter Thiel and actor Rainn Wilson (yes, “Dwight” from The Office). Big Think Edge focuses mostly on business skills rather than academic subjects more broadly. Several universities, including the University of Toronto (specifically, its Rotman School of Management), have already incorporated the material into classes.

GBI is not available for free, but it cost only $130 when the Pope Center bought it. That isn’t bad for a Harvard course, where four years of tuition (if you don’t get a discount) costs roughly $200,000, making the cost of the average 3-credit class about $5,000. Currently, however, there is no way for students to certify their learning from GBI, unlike MIT’s new MITx program.

The Great Big Ideas course probably will not be a “disruptive innovation,” in the sense that it will radically transform higher education, but it allows students access to some of the most impressive educational materials that are available online. GBI is another step away from the old-fashioned idea that a student’s postsecondary education has to consist of taking courses at the college where he or she enrolls.

The course may even help some people decide on a course of study. Viewers might choose to take up the liberal arts after hearing the lectures by Botstein, Brenzel, and Summers. Or perhaps they’ll be fascinated by one of the scientific fields. The crucial benefit of GBI is that it can get people excited about the world of ideas when they are trying to chart their own career.