Great Big Ideas loses steam

The University’s most popular residential college seminar last semester is back this spring, but demand for the course has declined.

Roughly 120 students gathered in Timothy Dwight’s dining hall Wednesday afternoon to shop “Great Big Ideas,” the Yale College seminar that surveys 12 major fields through a combination of hour-long video lectures by experts, readings and class discussions. When the class launched at Yale, Harvard and Bard College and to subscribers online in the fall as the first course offering of the Floating University — a for-profit educational enterprise — it was heralded as a new educational model by Floating University co-founder, philanthropist and businessman Adam Glick ’82. Though the course returned to Yale this semester, it is not being taught at Harvard and Bard, nor has it caught on at other institutions.

Glick told the News in September that he was in talks to license the “Great Big Ideas” curriculum to several other schools. While the course has not expanded beyond Yale, Harvard and Bard, Glick said Sunday that the Floating University and “Great Big Ideas” are still in their early phases. Glick said he expects the course will be taught in 30 to 50 schools within the next two to three years, and that he is continuing discussions with a number of other colleges.

“It takes a very long time,” Glick said. “The wheels of academia grind exceedingly slowly.”

The 18-person seminar is still popular among students this spring, but it has not drawn the same crowds as last fall, when it was led by both Glick and Provost Peter Salovey.

The inaugural meeting of “Great Big Ideas” drew nearly 300 students in September, and limited enrollment to freshmen and sophomores. This semester, Glick said the course has been opened to juniors and seniors to see whether it would benefit from including students with “more perspective.” Though only 79 students were registered as shopping the course on Yale’s online course selection as of Wednesday night and this semester’s first-meeting attendance was lower than September’s, Glick said he attributes the decreased turnout to a technological glitch that caused Yale Bluebook, a new student-designed course shopping website, not to list college seminars until Jan. 2.

Salovey also will not co-teach the seminar this spring, which Glick said had also likely lowered student interest. Salovey wrote in a Wednesday night email that while he enjoyed instructing the course in the fall, he could only fit one semester of teaching into his schedule.

The class received rave reviews from students in the fall, and 11 of 17 shoppers interviewed said they had decided to apply for the course because of recommendations they received from friends.

Grace Hirshorn ’15 called “Great Big Ideas” the “most life-changing and worthwhile class” she had ever taken, praising its conversational format and stimulating content. Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel, who gives a video lecture for the course on the classics, said the class creates “new possibilities for undergraduate course design.”

“It challenged the way we think about different subjects and ideas that we’re exposed to in a way that no other course can,” said Vinay Nayak ’14, who took the course in the fall. “Basically everyone found the class to be unbelievably rewarding.”

But reviews have not been positive at all schools. The Bard Free Press, a Bard student newspaper, reported mixed student opinions of the class, which is not being offered this fall.

Bard College President Leon Botstein told the News that he expects Glick will adjust the readings and lectures for when the college offers the class the following fall.

At least for this spring at Yale, the course will retain the same format. Glick said he plans to improvise and be flexible, spending more time on topics that interest students.

While “Great Big Ideas” has changed little in its format at Yale, the online lectures have undergone a significant reduction in price — now selling at $199 for a six-month subscription, rather than their initial price of $495. Glick said he decided to reduce the price after finding that Christmas discounts and specials attracted far more customers. He declined to say how many people have purchased subscriptions.

“Great Big Ideas” meets in William L. Harkness Hall on Wednesdays from 3:30 p.m. to 5:20 p.m.

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