Monday, February 04, 2013

Video Learning Endorsed

New Bern, NC

I want to give a ringing endorsement to the concept of free online courses on video.  I've been indulging every day in a series of tough courses for the past two months.  I must say I'm amazed at how much I learned.  In fact, I don't think I could have mastered those courses at all in a conventional classroom setting.

I first learned about the idea from a TED talk by Sal Khan.  I visited his site Khan Academy, where there are more than 3000 short lectures on a host of subjects.  I tried Chemistry, a subject I nearly failed in college.  To my delight, I learned what I never did in College.  I also took Khan's courses on economics just for fun.  Now I can draw Keynesian curves with the best of them.

In his talk, Khan said that he discovered by accident that presenting lectures in 10 minute bites was much more effective.   He also discovered that with video learning the goal should be 100% comprehension, not 80% or 90%.   You can rewind and replay as much as you need to achieve 100%.  If you do, then all the subsequent lessons are easier.

Then I turned to something much harder.  The famous theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind from Stanford University taught a series of courses he called The Theoretical Minimum. It was a continuing education class designed for old farts like me.  Old people don't have so many years in front of them so they are in a hurry to learn.  Susskind designed these courses to train people to become theoretical physicists the simplest and fastest way.

Anyhow, The Theoretical Minimum online is a series of  45 lectures, 90-120 minutes each, covering.

  1. Classical Physics
  2. Quantum Physics
  3. Relativity and Field Theory
  4. General Relativity
  5. Cosmology
(p.s. iTunes-U provides the best and easiest way to view them free)

I did them all in 10-20 minute chunks.  I did rewind and replay whenever needed.  I also paused replay and visited Wikipedia whenever an unfamiliar calculus concept was mentioned.   Wow!  It worked better than I dared to imagine.  I not only learned a whole lot of fascinating physics, I also learned the equivalent of 6 semesters of advanced calculus, just to keep up.   I had no idea how elementary my engineer's college education really was.

I'm positive that I could have never kept up on Susskind's courses in a conventional classroom.  It was heavy duty stuff with almost all the time doing math on the blackboard.  If I missed a point, my mind would mull it over and over as I failed to pay attention to what followed in the next few minutes.   It would be a case of falling gradually further and further behind.  Using the videos, I managed to keep up, and I believe with 100% comprehension.   (Note that comprehension is not the same as retention.  To retain the stuff I would need lots of practice and homework too.)  But retention was not my goal, merely the joy of learning.

Now, to my delight I found another two dozen of Susskind lectures on particle physics, The Standard Model and quantum entanglement.   Oh boy, I'm looking forward to them.

My endorsement is limited to my experience.  I am aware that there are lots of online courses being offered to students from commercial sources, and that many of these courses are scams; they provide little benefit for the cost.   Nevertheless, MOOC (massively open online courses) is a fad right now among universities world wide.  I say hooray.

If you love learning, or if you need a particular subject, I suggest that you give online videos a try.  Try www.khanacademy.org first, and iTtunes-U next.

p.s. Libby and I are now taking a course together, and having fun discussing it with each other.  It is a Harvard course called Justice.  We found it on iTunes-U.   It is said to be the most popular Harvard course ever, with more than 1000 students packing the lecture hall.  It is about morality, philosophy, and social justice.  In the end it teaches students to think critically.   Libby and I are amused at how na├»ve (meaning uncritical in their thinking, pliable. ignorant) those super smart Harvard students are.  Our 68 years make us very much smarter than those students about life.

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