30 Mar 2010


I’ve read a few theories about the origin of our expression “OK.” But I haven’t come across this one that occurred to me the other day. When you hold your hand in that gesture that means “OK”, you make a circle with your thumb and index finger. That’s an O, and your other three fingers sort of make a “K”. The middle finger is the vertical stem, and the other two fingers are the diagonal ones. Just a thought.

23 Mar 2010

Distance learning for the over-educated

I’m definitely a “lifelong learner” type, always craving new courses, books, or ideas. I even love reading long computer game manuals for complicated games like Europa Universalis 3. It’s pretty easy to learn the beginning of a new field, because there are usually some audiobooks, Teaching Company courses, or online materials to introduce you to the main concepts. But what if you already know a lot about something, and you want to learn even more?

What if you are already educated in a field, and you want to learn about a sub-field, or a more advanced version of what you already know? Here, your options are more limited. If you are lucky enough to live near a college or university, and that university teaches in your field, and offers a course in the sub-field you want to explore, and you have time to audit a course, and the professor permits you to audit, and you manage to attend twice a week while holding down a job, then goody for you! I am almost in that boat, since I live in Pittsburgh, which has several colleges and universities, including two major universities that have several departments covering the areas I love. In browsing the Fall 2010 class schedules, I see a few courses I’d like to take. Some are more related to work, some are more related to my past life as a mathematician. If I convince myself I should take time during the work day to take a class, then I might be in luck. But what if I specifically wanted to take a graduate-level class in, say, algebraic geometry, and none was on offer in the Fall? Are there online algebraic geometry courses?

No. Believe me, I looked everywhere. MSRI has lots of lectures posted online, and they are usually long workshops that might constitute a good introduction to a subject, but their videos are all broken and have been since I first went to the site, and are still broken three weeks after I wrote to inform them they were broken. I looked at everything in iTunes U, and those cover mainly undergraduate topics, and the few exceptions were not interesting to me. I looked at MIT OpenCourseware, but everything with video lectures is on iTunes U, which I already know doesn’t cover what I want. Lecture notes don’t help any more than books.

So what about books? I have lots of books. I have one next to me called “Heat Kernels and Dirac Operators” which is beautiful and fun to read. But I don’t have the discipline to work through it all alone. I need the structure of a class, or a seminar.

An informal seminar would be fantastic. If I knew someone in Pittsburgh who wanted to work through “Heat Kernels” with me, that would probably be the best possible outcome. But the odds that there is such a person and that I will meet them during my limited time outside of work is zilch.

Which brings me to my dual proposal for the world. First, please record video of all your graduate courses and sell them on iTunes, or offer them free through iTunes U, or offer them to distance learning students at a reasonable rate, and make the course easy to find. I mean, my own alma mater, Columbia University, should offer me, an alumnus, video of all the math department courses. I’d love them for it. Yes I took some of those courses, but now, years later, I’d take different ones, and different ones would be offered than were offered during my years there anyway, and it would be great.

Part two of my proposal is for the Web 2.0 entrepreneurs. Let me meet, non-awkwardly, on a web site, people like myself, and form an ad-hoc videoconferencing seminar. We would agree on the reading material, and take turns presenting chapters or sections of the material, like in a regular seminar. Video skype, plus screen sharing or web conferencing, plus whiteboards, it could totally work! The technology all exists, we just need a way to find each other, and to have a web site with enough features to support it. Should I create it? Would anybody show up? Maybe I’ll post to mathoverflow.com and see if anyone agrees.