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Online "World Science U" offers physics instruction at several levels

20 August 2014
Brian Greene hopes also to attract "luminary instructors" from biology, chemistry, astronomy, and mathematics.

Without much media attention so far, Columbia University physics professor and science popularizer Brian Greene is seeking to advance the use of the internet for teaching physics and science generally, including for university credit.

In late 2012, the New York Times published the long article "The year of the MOOC," meaning massive open online course. MOOCs "have been around for a few years as collaborative techie learning events," it said, "but this is the year everyone wants in." Near the end the article enthused, "The line between online and on campus is already blurring."

In late 2013, the Times's front page carried "After setbacks, online courses are rethought," joining other publications in

In late summer 2014, Google searches turn up only a few articles about college instruction on the internet. Symmetry, a joint publication of Fermilab and SLAC, has published one of them: Amanda Solliday's "Science on demand: Brian Greene welcomes the Internet to physics class with World Science U."

The World Science U website explains that WSU's offerings "are layered by depth of exploration," reaching not just for university-credit seekers. There's "Science Unplugged," with short video answers to questions ranging from "What is a Higgs particle?" to "What happens to time near a black hole?" There are "Short Courses," described as two- to three-week explorations without prerequisites or homework, designed for lifelong learners who want to go beyond typical science popularizations. And there are self-paced "University Courses," 8 to 10 weeks long, for "when you want to get serious."

WSU is allied with the World Science Festival under the auspices of the Science Festival Foundation, a New York City nonprofit. Solliday reports that since March, about 130 000 people have signed up to access the videos and courses, with the "Science Unplugged" clips drawing nearly a million hits. She cites the University of Cape Town, Duke University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, as involved in the WSU effort.

Her piece sums up by looking ahead: "WSU will eventually offer course content in other scientific disciplines beyond physics, Greene says. The plan is to offer future classes in biology, chemistry, astronomy and mathematics, taught by luminary instructors from these fields."


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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