How To Go to Harvard for Free

The joys of Academic Earth’s online video lectures.

Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to educate myself on our financial crisis. To that end, I dropped in on a class at Yale that examined real estate finance and the roots of the federal government’s involvement in the mortgage industry. “A lot of people have the impression that home prices only go up,” my professor, economist Robert Shiller, told us. But this was clearly wrong: Shiller put up a graph showing American home prices during the last 100 years. Over much of the century, the line fluctuates wildly; then, around 2000, it begins an unprecedented, inexplicable spike, even larger than the run-up in prices after World War II. * This was an eye-opener. Anyone who’d seen this graph three or four years ago should have known we were headed for trouble. Who knew school could be this useful? Perhaps Alan Greenspan should have taken this class.

I’ve got lots of free time, so why stop learning? I sat in on an instructive lecture by David Swensen, the whiz who manages Yale’s endowment, about strategies for investing over the long term. A few days later, I attended a class taught by Harvard’s Larry Summers, who’s now an economic adviser to President Obama. Summers was arguing that macroeconomics in the next century will be shaped more by financial crises than by the business cycle—or something like that. I can’t really say because he was pretty dull, and I discreetly walked out; instead, I visited Princeton economist Alan Blinder’s lecture about the origins of the financial mess, which was far snappier.

And that’s not all! I’m also taking a thrilling class on game theory taught by Yale economist Benjamin Polak, and I’m thinking of signing up for courses in electrical engineering at MIT, computer programming at Stanford, and climate change policy at Berkeley. I live in San Francisco, but I attended all of these classes without ever leaving my house, often while I was supposed to have been doing something else. Over the last few years, snooty universities across the country have been filming their lectures and putting their course material online. A few months ago, Academic Earth, a startup founded by a young Yale graduate named Richard Ludlow, began collecting these videos and packaging them into full-length courses. The result is a geeky procrastinator’s dream.

It’s been years since I was in school, and I’ve got few fond memories of going to class. But Academic Earth is unexpectedly irresistible. It’s like Hulu, but for nerds. Many of the professors are great teachers, and, unlike in college, I can go to class on my own time—which ensures that I’m not too sleepy to understand what’s going on. Academic Earth achieves something like what Google was trying to pull off with Knol, the messy encyclopedialike project that the search engine launched last year. Both sites let you learn from recognized experts rather than from the anonymous crowds who populate Wikipedia. But Academic Earth bests Knol, because the experts here aren’t just throwing up their opinions whenever the mood strikes them. Instead, they’re doing their jobs—teaching in actual classrooms, at recognized universities, to real, live, students.

Most of the videos have excellent production quality. They capture the professor, her blackboard notes, and even discussions with students (in a few videos, though, the students aren’t adequately miked, so it’s difficult to hear their questions). The site has an excellent, easy-to-navigate interface—there’s a great search engine, you can browse the videos by subject or professor, and you can subscribe to full courses as a podcast. My one complaint: Because each lecture lasts an hour or longer, I found myself watching them in small increments over the course of the day—but if I shut my browser down and came back to a video later on, the site didn’t remember where I’d left off. Academic Earth also puts up course material alongside many videos—lecture notes, transcripts, handouts, even homework. The site lets viewers grade each class, making for a handy guide for choosing which classes to attend. The feature could also be useful to people who already go to Harvard, Yale, or one of the site’s other prestigious participants, as well as to kids who are considering attending. Say you’re the lucky future computer scientist who got into Harvard and Stanford—how do you choose? Spend an afternoon watching each school’s intro CS courses. Every school tells you that it’s got great professors, but now you’ve got a way to check out the quality of instruction before you attend. (Based on the videos, I’d choose Stanford.)

Ludlow, Academic Earth’s founder, has grand ambitions for the site; last year he told BusinessWeek that in disseminating course material widely and cheaply, he hopes to help lower the cost of education around the world. Still, Academic Earth is a for-profit venture. The site collects videos from universities that make them available under loose copyright rules (such as the Creative Commons license). These rules often preclude third parties from making money from the videos, but Ludlow plans to add other, nonuniversity content to the site—lectures from think tanks, for instance—which he can sell advertising on.

Can you get a full education at Academic Earth? Perhaps one day you may be able to—several studies have shown that distance learning can be an effective teaching method. At the moment, though, Academic Earth is more of a pastime than a replacement for college. Though there are hundreds of videos, there aren’t enough different courses to fill an undergraduate curriculum. (There are far more courses in science, engineering, and economics than in the humanities; you’ll find only a single course each on fiction, poetry, and psychology.) And, of course, there’s a lot more to a college than lectures—Academic Earth doesn’t require you to participate in weekly discussion sections, chemistry labs, midterms, essays, or final exams. You also don’t get to spend late nights with your roommates pondering impossible organic chemistry problem sets or hazy early mornings trying to remember how you ended up in that dude’s bed. So if you were accepted at Yale and your folks can spare $45,000 a year, go!

On the other hand, part of what makes Academic Earth so much fun is what it lacks. No essays, no finals, no classroom discussions full of inane opinions about what Nabokov is really trying to say in Lolita. Instead, just an hour of the world’s experts talking about stuff they’re passionate about. I’m especially fond of the site’s playlists. These are collections of lectures from different professors at different schools on a single theme—among others, there are playlists devoted to history’s great wars, building successful companies, and recipes for a happy life. Queue them up on a lazy afternoon, and there’s no doubt you’ll learn something. And here’s the best part—you don’t have to take any notes.

Correction, Feb. 23, 2009: This article originally stated that the spike in home prices around 2000 was several times larger than in the run-up after World War II. The increase was larger, but not by several times. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)