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Good In Theory — A Review of Stanford’s Understanding Einstein MOOC

This recently completed Coursera MOOC on Einstein and his Special Theory of Relativity is taught by Larry Randles Lagerstrom, Historian of Science at Stanford University (who I have a sneaking suspicion I met many years ago when I used to accompany my wife to conferences for the Society of Historians of Technology to which both she and Lagerstrom belong).

Einstein and relativity MOOC

NASA via Wikimedia

That bit of trivia aside, this was a course I debated adding to an already crowded class schedule, given that the subject matter (Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity) was likely to make pretty hefty demands on both the calendar and the brain, even for someone with a science background (including yours truly who got a BA in chemistry – albeit during the Reagan administration).

Now Lagerstrom is aware that his audience might vary widely in experience level (especially with regard to math background), which is why he alerted students upfront that they had options to take the course either quantitatively (which required them to work on a series of relativity-related homework exercises, quizzes and problem sets) or qualitatively (which just required them to work on a creative project regarding Einstein himself) in addition to the auditing option always available with any MOOC course.

Since learning Einstein without doing the math seems like learning swimming by reading a biography of Michael Phelps, I decided to go down the quantitative route (which also keeps with the spirit of this Degree of Freedom project to do and get the most out of every class I’m enrolled in). And I’m glad I did since the bulk of the course really had more to do with Einstein’s work than his background.

In many ways, this was the most straightforward transfer I’ve seen yet of an actual college class to an online platform. For every week, there was Professor Lagerstrom writing on his whiteboard with different-colored pens, lecturing on topics that built from class to class (starting with frames of reference and moving on to waves, gamma, the Lorenz Transformations and the weirdness and paradoxes that result from taking as given Einstein’s postulates – especially the one that says light travels at the same speed in all reference frames).

But here is where looks can be deceiving. For Lagerstrom’s class combined three things I’ve come to value most in any online course: clarity (his explanation of complex topics could not have been more straightforward), efficiency (covering numerous complex subjects in less than twenty hours of lecture) and enthusiasm (if I get one more e-mail from the professor excitedly alerting me to his latest video releases, my inbox might reach critical mass).

The weekly problem sets the instructor provided were particularly challenging, especially if you followed his advice and worked on them without the benefit of looking at potential answers in the quiz form you would ultimately use to submit answers (which, like the homework and quizzes, were in multiple-choice format).

The homeworks (usually several per week) were somewhat less demanding, and I was a bit surprised to see that the weekly quizzes consisted of questions we’d already been asked on homework assignments. This may just reflect the general tendency I’ve seen of MOOCs treating assessment as an afterthought. Although I also suspect that the professor’s desire to leave as few people behind as possible also played a role in creating a class that would not have that many obstacles to completion.

And so I have made it to this side of the divide between those who understand (and can even explain to his kids) one of the most fascinating theories ever devised by man vs. those who still consider Einstein’s ideas the baffling stuff of science fiction. But I’ve also learned more than that.

For one of my favorite weeks of class was week 1, which the professor spent explaining to listeners how to succeed in his class. And while some of his suggestions seem straightforward (take notes, don’t multi-task, work on problems on your own, etc.), they reinforced what I’ve learned over the last 5-6 months in all my classes: that only by treating them like genuine college courses (not podcast lectures listened to while cleaning the garage) can you obtain genuine understanding – especially of a topic that taps into the secrets of the universe.


Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber at Degree of Freedom, who is tracking his progress in trying to learn in just twelve months everything he would if enrolled in a four year liberal arts BA program and using only free resources.  Along the way he is writing reviews of courses he completes, some of which he generously allows us to republish here. To get all of Jonathan’s MOOC reviews, and more, be sure to sign up for the weekly Degree of Freedom Newsletter.

Jonathan Haber (19 Posts)

Jonathan Haber is a Boston-based writer and educational specialist whose Degree of Freedom project is experimenting with whether it's possible to learn everything you would get from a four year liberal arts degree in just twelve months using only free educational resources. You can follow his progress at