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Google will videotape all Harvard classes and make them universally accessible

Zhigang Suo's picture

I wish that this thought had come to me earlier, so that I could have posted it on April First.  No, I'm unaware of such a program.  Instead, Harvard faculty have just emerged from a multi-year review of curriculum, and reaffirmed the commitment to liberal education, after voting out a president not too long ago.

On the other hand, the thought of Google videotaping all Harvard classes may not be so crazy.  Let me quote the mission of Google:

"Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

Let me also quote from my early post, Let us seize the greatest opportunity of our time:

"Another popular topic twenty years ago was information explosion. How can we hand down knowledge to the next generation? How can a piece of information serve the public if few know it? Now Google and others have turned this problem into a hugely profitable business."

Finally, let me quote the mission of Harvard College:

"The advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences; the advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences; and all other necessary provisions that may conduce to the education of the ... youth of this country...."

This mission statement has not changed since the Charter of 1650 was granted.  The only needed modification of this statement, it seems to me, is to change the phrase "youth of this country" to "people of the world".

I don't mean to imply that only Harvard and a few other universities should have this lofty mission. The mission ought to be the one for all universities.

Given these mission statements, the thought of Google videotaping all Harvard classes seems an obvious thing for Google and Harvard to do.  Google would provide the technology and foot the bill, and Harvard and other universities would provide classes of "all good literature, arts, and sciences". 

Google gains by acquiring a major stream of information to monetize.  Universities gain by advertising themselves to the world at zero cost.  The people in the world, now and forever, gain by free access to everything that has ever been said in every class.

Google and other technology companies will surely come up with algorithms to make the lectures searchable and useful.  Universities will surely find out that open their classes to everyone in the would will not diminish their attractiveness to people to pay to attend them.

I miss the lectures of Budiansky and Sanders and Carrier.  I wish I were there when Koiter gave his lectures on the stability of elastic equilibrium.  Their lectures have been tragically lost, but it was nobody's fault.  It would be negligence on our part to let such tragedy happen in future.  I wish the program will start before Rice and Hutchinson retire. 

Now that Harvard faculty have reaffirmed the commitment to liberal education, and have named a new president, perhaps it is time for us to do a few things imaginative, and lead the way to the future.  Of all traditions of this great university, the tradition to reinvent itself and to innovate and to seize new opportunities is the one we ought to cherish the most.

This thought came to me when I reread the essay Undergarduate Education at Harvard by George M. Whitesides.


A few thoughts on Zhigang's idea from one of his colleagues in the other wing of Harvard's engineering school (I am a computer scientist).

Harvard videotapes quite a few classes already, and the administration is getting worried about the costs, mostly for videographers. Right now you can have your class videtotaped pretty much for the asking, but I think there will be pressure for cutbacks for cost reasons. Though there are so many changes in the Harvard administration these days it is hard to know which worries will be passed on! My own undergraduate courses are videotaped because they are delivered to a distance audience through our Division of Continuing Education. During the term the students in my college course get access to those videos and after the dual courses are over we open them up to the world. You can also get them right now as podcasts through Apple iTunes or Apple's online university site.

The problem with making videotaped lectures immediately available to college students is that many stop showing up for class. I've heard of several strategies to combat videotape absenteeism (don't make them available until a week before the exam; make them available only for a week after the lecture; make them available any time but only to students who email the professor to make the request). And one colleague pointed out that we have no data to suggest that the students who show up for class actually learn more, so why do we care?

As a business idea this might make sense but there are questions. The question for Google would be whether they could automate the taping to save labor costs, the way they have been able to automate the page-turning in the Google Books project. The business question for Harvard would be whether Zhigang would be happy having his mechanics lectures sponsored by advertisements from (say) his least favorite manufacturing company. Also of course how the profits from advertising would be split. At Harvard we don't allow corporate advertising at the football stadium, nor do we have corporate names on buildings. If we did this and started to make money at it, would we worry about offending our advertisers?

I myself am not too worried that if Harvard gave this stuff away, people would not sign up to get our degrees. Nothing in MIT's OpenCourseWare experience seems to suggest that would be a problem.

Another thing to recognize is that we are likely to teach differently if we think the whole world is going to hear what we say. We will become more careful and less spontaneous. I had a guest lecturer last year who was so annoyed about a misrepresentation by a major software company that he told the fifty students in the classroom that they should all "Sue <big corporation>!". When he remembered that he did not have a job for next year and he might want to work for <big coproration>, he asked that his little outburst be edited out before the lecture video was posted for the world to see!

But for sure, if some of the great lectures could be preserved, it would be a public service. I'd add Max Krook to Zhigang's list. I learned applied math from him when I was an undergrad in 1967. He could fill blackboards with equations and conformal mappings at a rate of 6 blackboards/hour, without notes. Forty years later, and after 33 years teaching at Harvard, I am still dazzled.

Harry Lewis

Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Harry:  Thank you so much for your comments.  I've heard good things about your Harvard Core course, Bits, but didn't know it had been videotaped.  I found the videos of your lectures online.  Most lectures are still password protected.  I was able to view the lecture on probabilities and codes.  It was fun and effective.

... once the course is over. This seems an appropriate way to balance the need for DCE to collect tuitions for the distance course, and my fundamentally libertarian posture about information.
BUT right now you can download all the podcasts, though as I said, they lack the powerpoints. (If you are really interested, you can separately download the powerpoints from the course web site -- it's called Quantitative Reasoning 48, "Bits.") Whenever you view, I particularly recommend the April 25 lecture, about the unbelievable but true origin tale of spread spectrum technology.
Harry Lewis

Really speaking, I am neither competent nor so much interested about the main issue of this thread, namely, the practical aspects of making available to the public the videotaped lectures of the faculty at Harvard.

Of course, generally speaking, one would be in favor of having lectures videotaped--sometimes, even academics can be so worthy that their lectures ought to be preserved as a matter of institutional heritage. Yet, I guess I am not competent enough (competent, as in "competent authority") that I should comment on the various practical aspects so well put forth above.

What I have to say is in reference to the last paragraph. I have created a separate blog entry because the relation is so indirect. Please see: Thanks.

Perfect, good news.

Internet is changing the world, e.g. education style. The resources, not only from Harvard, but also from other univesities will be on the internet in the future. Perfect, what we face is 'how to choose those resources'. 

Befor this news, It's has been a good resource share form MIT open class. We can download the ppt and course resource in the in internet.  But , with google and harvard , we can listen just like in the classrom ,and more excting ,It's taught by the excellence professor in the world .

Zhigang Suo's picture

Good or bad, my post is not news; its an opinion.  I don't know of any plan for Google to video any classes of any university.  I do believe, however, that universities should seize the oppotunities of the Internet and Globalization, and experiment with creative ideas that will shape the future.  Whitesides has discussed many such ideas in his essay.

yoursdhruly's picture

Professor Gilbert Strang's videos at MIT OCW have been a life-saver for me. I truly wish more professors would make their videos available online: I have even watced the videos on Solid State Chemistry and some videos on Genetics on MIT OCW, for my general information. There is no doubt in my mind that course videos are the most effective and convenient way of educating oneself. I hope your idea, Professor Suo, becomes a reality. 

I agree completely with Zhigang that a significant portion of our history is being lost even though we have the resources to record it.  The case in point are live lectures by the giants of our field.  One way to store some of this history is to record conference keynote talks and to disseminate them widely.  A part of the conference fees can be used to pay for the recording, storage, and dissemination of these talks.

We already record the movements and activities of millions of people automatically via cameras in public places and other devices used by the National Security Agencies of several countries.  So the technology is available to record entire courses or conferences automatically.  The storage and dissemination of this data is costly.  But it's a matter of time when we will be able to store all the information that we would ever want to and disseminate it via the web.  It just needs a visionary company like Google to start the process.  Though I would prefer the control of such data to be in the hands of more than one individual or group.

This reminds me of a related thing.  Many of you go to conferences.  Have you ever considered blogging about the talks on iMechanica?  


Zhigang Suo's picture is an all-volunteer team of audio/video producers who record and publish important spoken-word events anywhere in the world.  Here is Jon Udell's podcast interview with Doug Kaye, the founder of PodCorps.

That would be great but sounds a bit fantastic. To have access to Harvard classes must be a dream of many people.



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