A Book or a Course?

I have long loved Maxwell’s Equations as the epitome of beauty in physics and as the source of inspiration for my teaching. But though the equations are beautiful and even familiar, very few people understand them. So, when I came across this paper by the great physicist Freeman Dyson called “Why is Maxwell’s Theory too hard to understand?” I could not resist reading it. His telling of the Maxwell Equations’ story led me in a new direction not just in thinking not about physics but about education in the digital age. It led me to ask: “What’s the difference between a book and a course today?” and to further ask, “What will they look like in the future?” Before you help me tackle those questions, I suggest you look at the story Dyson tells about Maxwell’s great work.

In the year 1865, James Clerk Maxwell published his paper “A dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field” in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. He was then thirty-four years old. We, with the advantage of hindsight, can see clearly that Maxwell’s paper was the most important event of the nineteenth century in the history of the physical sciences. If we include the biological sciences as well as the physical sciences, Maxwell’s paper was second only to Darwin’s “Origin of Species”. But the importance of Maxwell’s work was not obvious to his contemporaries. For more than twenty years, his theory of electromagnetism was largely ignored. Physicists found it hard to understand because the equations were complicated. Mathematicians found it hard to understand because Maxwell used physical language to explain it. It was regarded as an obscure speculation without much experimental evidence to support it. The physicist Michael Pupin in his autobiography “From Immigrant to Inventor” describes how he travelled from America to Europe in 1883 in search of somebody who understood Maxwell. He set out to learn the Maxwell theory like a knight in quest of the Holy Grail.

Maxwell’s Equations in the elegant form found on college student tee shirts and physics classroom posters were not the the way Maxwell wrote them down in 1865. He did not have the benefit of the power or the simplicity of vector calculus. And the idea of fields as environments was then brand new and hard to grasp. But of greater interest to me, beyond the significance and power of symbol systems which have been well known, was Dyson’s recognition that for many, maybe most new ideas, just the process of writing them down for someone to read in paper or book form is not enough. We have to be taught. We have to learn them. Dyson continues.

Pupin went first to Cambridge and enrolled as a student, hoping to learn the theory from Maxwell himself. He did not know that Maxwell had died four years earlier. After learning that Maxwell was dead, he stayed on in Cambridge and was assigned to a college tutor. But his tutor knew less about the Maxwell theory than he did, and was only interested in training him to solve mathematical tripos problems. He was amazed to discover, as he says, “how few were the physicists who had caught the meaning of the theory, even twenty years after it was stated by Maxwell in 1865”. Finally he escaped from Cambridge to Berlin and enrolled as a student with Hermann von Helmholtz. Helmholtz understood the theory and taught Pupin what he knew. Pupin returned to New York, became a professor at Columbia University, and taught the successive generations of students who subsequently spread the gospel of Maxwell all over America.

I highly recommend you read the rest of Dyson’s paper, but for now, I want to consider the question it has prompted. As books have become more interactive, as textbooks become linked to fancy interactive websites, as courses become MOOCs wrested from the tyranny of a 15 week calendar the physical classroom and the format of live teacher; we now see both methods of education in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. So, today, “What is the difference?” “Are we trying to write and publish (perhaps self-publish) a book, or are we trying to teach an online course?”

For me, these questions are not philosophical; they are real. I am in the process of putting together a book/course on the future of education. Since it is about education in this new digital age, the form and format are just as important as the ideas. So I ask your help.

As we learn from the Maxwell’s Equations story, courses help people digest and learn new ideas that simply reading them in a traditional paper or book form does not. The ideas in my vision of the future of education are radical and no doubt in need of something that looks more like a course, but certainly not a 20th century course and even less like a 19th century book. “So what does it look like, I wonder?” “What does the merger of books and courses make?”

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