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Harvard, Yale, and Bard Back ‘Floating University’ That Showcases Scholars’ Online Lectures

Could you distill your entire field into an hourlong presentation?

Some leading scholars are taking up that challenge in a for-profit educational video venture that debuts next month.

It’s called the Floating University. The project’s first production is a course called “Great Big Ideas: An Entire Undergraduate Education While Standing on One Foot.” The survey course features 14 video lectures from scholars like Yale’s Paul Bloom (psychology); CUNY’s Michio Kaku (physics); Berkeley’s Deborah Nolan (statistics); Bard’s Leon Botstein (art); and Harvard’s Steven Pinker (linguistics). There’s also material on biomedicine, classics, sociology, economics, and politics. Three institutions—Harvard, Yale, and Bard—are offering the survey course for credit to incoming freshmen this fall, with the videos and related readings serving as prompts for in-class discussions.

The project is a collaboration between the ideas Web site Big Think and the Jack Parker Corporation, a New York real-estate-development company. It faces competition from other educational-video providers, like TED, TeacherTube, and even YouTube. And there’s already a course in “Big History,” backed by Bill Gates. But Adam Glick, Jack Parker’s president, hopes his “Floating University” will stand out because of its production quality, with graphics, animations, and multiple camera angles. His plan is to license the materials to educational institutions and to sell “Great Big Ideas” subscriptions to the general public. The price of those subscriptions is still undetermined, but a spokeswoman ballparked it at “under $500.”

The roots of this project go back to Mr. Glick’s job running a real-estate company and an investment portfolio. He wanted to hire employees with broad general knowledge, he says, but struggled to find them. And disciplinary silos prevent universities from creating courses that sprawl across so much intellectual turf, he argues.

“It’s very, very difficult politically to have a course that involves 12 different professors,” Mr. Glick says. “So we did it for them.”

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