Great Big Ideas may have great big possibilities

Adam Glick’s ’82  course features 12 lectures from all-star academics, including Larry Summers, Bill Ackman, and Tamar Gendler.
Adam Glick’s ’82 course features 12 lectures from all-star academics, including Larry Summers, Bill Ackman, and Tamar Gendler. Photo by Earl Lee.

Adam Glick ’82, the designer of Yale’s hottest residential college seminar this semester, says his course — “Great Big Ideas” — is essentially no different than a sampler in a restaurant. And he hopes that it will be only the first of many such intellectual appetizers.

“Great Big Ideas,” the Yale College seminar, is the inaugural course offering of the Floating University: a for-profit educational enterprise co-founded by Glick, a philanthropist and businessman, and online forum Big Think. The course launched at Yale, Harvard and Bard colleges and to subscribers across the Internet this fall, and is charting new territory in higher education with its multimedia-heavy class. The seminar — which had its first official Yale meeting Wednesday — explores key ideas in 12 different areas, and features video lectures given in each discipline by a prominent professor in the field.

“We’re delivering something that’s purposefully an inch deep and a mile wide,” Glick said. “That’s the opposite of most education, where you look at something in a very narrow field.”

Glick recorded state-of-the-art lectures given by all-star academics from across disciplines to create a curriculum that relies on cutting-edge technology, and therefore can be made available to individuals and schools across the country.

The course’s interdisciplinary nature is intended to fill a need for introductory classes that expose students to a variety of disciplines before asking them to hone in on a major, Glick and professors involved in the class at Yale, Harvard and Bard said.

“I’m interested in the general idea that the course has expounded on — mainly that when very bright young scholars leave high school and start college they’re often asked to focus in on a discipline before knowing what the big ideas and problems in this day and age are,” said Douglas Melton, a professor in the natural sciences at Harvard and one of the seminar’s two leaders in Cambridge, Mass. “You can’t cover all subjects, but I think it’s worth a try to see how it works.”

That “try” has generated success thus far: the sheer number of interested students forced Harvard to limit enrollment to freshmen, while Yale left applications open to freshmen and sophomores. More than 300 Yale students attended the class’s shopping period session in the Timothy Dwight dining hall, and it experienced a similar reception at Harvard and Bard, where hundreds of students applied to fill the 15 to 30 available slots at their schools.

AN ‘EXPERIMENTAL’ PHASE

A year or two ago, when Glick conceived the idea for the Floating University and approached a number of schools, he said none seemed interested in collaborating on the project. So, he ultimately decided to design the curriculum himself, and eventually received encouragement from Yale’s Provost Peter Salovey. This fall, to test the syllabus — which Glick said is still in an “experimental” phase — the Floating University is allowing Yale, Harvard and Bard to use the materials for free.

Glick said he is in talks to license the curriculum to several other schools. Some universities have expressed interest in offering “Great Big Ideas” as a lecture, Glick said, while others have considered showing all 12 lectures during freshmen orientation or integrating alums and students in the course. Glick said he has even had top high schools inquire about the course for second-semester seniors.

The financial model for licensing the course to other universities and schools has yet to be determined, Glick said, adding that he is currently in close negotiations with five to six schools. Members of the public can also subscribe to the lectures online for $495.

The Floating University’s appeal comes partly from its ability to boil down large topics into a few key points. But when Glick initially sought out experts and presented the challenge — condense a complex idea into a 45-minute presentation — he said he got strongly-worded rejections from leading young academics.

“Mostly I got very, very arrogant no’s — ‘How could I possibly? I’ve dedicated my whole life to this!’” Glick said. “Finally I said, screw it, I’m going to go to the top.”

He sent an email to Steven Pinker, a top expert in psychology at Harvard, and received a ‘yes’ within 20 minutes.

More followed.

“The higher the reputation of the professor, the more they were interested in the challenge of trying to do it and narrow it down to one hour,” Glick said.

By April, Glick said he and his team had started filming the lectures. Each one took about 500 hours of work, Glick said, with rehearsals, paper edits, rough cuts, animation and music work — and then a final cut. He declined to say how much each video cost to produce.

Melton, who delivered a video lecture on biomedical research, said the productions were filmed in dorm-sized rooms painted bright white. In the videos, the featured professors appear to float on those bright white backgrounds as graphics and animations pop in and out of the frame.

As the Floating University gains ground, Glick said he hopes it will create more offerings of a similarly expansive, interdisciplinary kind. The next will be a course on famous historical mistakes, questioning how Hitler was elected, why doctors used leeches as cures, why publishers rejected Moby Dick.

A NEW MODEL?

Academics and administrators involved with “Great Big Ideas” disagree on whether the class represents a breakthrough for higher education, and whether its format threatens to replace traditional pedagogy.

“I’m neither skeptical nor optimistic,” said Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and one of the school’s “Great Big Ideas” instructors. “I don’t think it’s a model. I think teaching and learning is sort of resistant to innovation. It’s been the same for centuries and it’s likely to remain the same.”

But Melton said he would not be surprised if the Floating University’s style of education becomes increasingly common because of the flexibility it allows.

Rockefeller University and Columbia University professor Joel Cohen, whose lecture on demography was the class’s first assignment, said he thinks the Floating University has many possible uses and benefits.

“It obviously has the potential to reach a lot of people who may not be able to go to Yale or Harvard,” he said. “On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a replacement for interaction with live teachers, or a replacement for book learning, scholarship or hard work.”

Regardless of where the course heads in the future, students seem to be embracing the class at Yale and the two other universities in the present. Students hung around to chat with Salovey and Glick after the seminar’s first session ended Wednesday, and gave a collective nod when asked if they enjoyed the class.

The opening discussion was lively, Grace Hirshrom ’15 said, and jumped right into the material.

“I think we’re talking about such relevant and controversial issues that everyone can’t help but have an opinion,” she said.

Those who hadn’t satisfied their discussion of demography continued the conversation over dinner in Timothy Dwight with Glick Wednesday.

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