Short Cuts

John Lanchester

When Ferran Adrià, the Spanish maestro who is undisputedly the most influential chef of the last two decades, gave up cooking at his restaurant El Bulli, he announced that he was going to be starting a number of projects. One of them is intended to be a foundation dedicated to the study of himself. Another was a collaboration on the subject of food and science with Harvard. I think quite a few people, on first hearing about that, scratched their heads and wondered what a joint venture between the two might be like. On the one hand, seawater sorbet and ampoules of reduced prawn head bouillon (two Adrià signature dishes). On the other, Helen Vendler. Outcome not obvious.

What we outsiders didn’t know is that all undergraduates at Harvard are required to take at least one class in science. As a result, the university offers some courses designed to be appealing to the kinds of student who wouldn’t be studying science unless they had to. Once that’s known, it makes a lot of sense to involve Adrià, who is rock-star famous in the world of food, in a course designed to appeal to the clever and curious and artily-minded young. So here it is: SPU27, an acronym standing for Science of the Physical Universe 27. Spelled out in English, the name of the course is Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science. The person who thinks it’s funny that SPU sounds like ‘spew’? Harvard isn’t cross with you. Just … disappointed.

Once upon a time, to take a course like SPU27, you had to be young enough and lucky enough in all the relevant ways to get to Harvard. Today, all you need is to be lucky enough to have access to a computer with an internet connection. SPU27 is part of a remarkable experiment in open access university education called EdX, a collaboration between Harvard and MIT, which gives away entire courses, online, for free. The type of course is known as a MOOC, for Massive Open Online Course, and is a big growth area in the field of education, with a truly extraordinary amount of material now available, almost entirely from American universities.[*] One of the leaders in the field is Stanford, creator of the first MOOCs.

Stanford has for some years been giving away a significant part of its courses for free as part of the project iTunes U: that’s to say, a part of Apple’s horrible iTunes ecosystem, devoted to free online university lectures. (Not that some of the things on iTunesU aren’t famously brilliant: see Michael Sandel’s lectures on justice, or Leonard Susskind’s on physics.) Stanford has now joined forces with Harvard and MIT as part of the OpenEdX coalition, to offer a consistent platform for MOOCs. This is significant, because Stanford is the gold standard in studying undergraduate computer science – and for the immediately foreseeable future, a good education in comp sci is one of the bedrock basics for anyone worried about post-graduate employability. Edward Snowden, who didn’t finish high school, was earning $200,000 a year with an education not very different from the one Stanford will give allcomers for free.

Online education is clearly going to be a huge deal for universities; for one thing, it may put quite a few of them out of business. It probably won’t be MOOCs that do that, though. I get the feeling that inside the American university system, their free and open nature makes them seem less of a threat – a threat in business terms – than other aspects of online learning. These are likely to involve paying less for an education which requires less physical presence on the part of teacher and student, but still has a level of interaction, supervision and marking. Education of this type will come with an increased emphasis on what’s called the ‘flipped classroom’. In the familiar type of education, you go to class in order to be talked at, then go home to do the homework which reveals whether or not you understand what you’ve been told. In the flipped classroom, you study at home by watching videos and reading books, and then go to class to be checked for whether you’ve understood what you’ve learned, and in turn to ask questions about things you haven’t yet grasped. The flipped classroom suits students who like to work at their own pace, and may increasingly suit generations used to getting all their information and entertainment from screens. It may also be that, in common with other online forms of learning, the flipped classroom suits sciences more than the arts. That’s just a hunch. Put the increased potential of online learning together with the rising cost of university education, and the decreased earning potential for graduates, and the theory of the flipped classroom, and it seems likely that there are big changes coming to the world of higher education.

MOOCs aren’t necessarily part of that change. I registered for EdX and sat down in front of SPU27x (which started on 8 October; you can still sign up and do the course in time to get a certificate). My intention was to ‘audit’ it, i.e. do as much of it as I felt like without subjecting myself to anything too obviously worky. Also, the science of cooking is one of my interests, and I was quietly confident that I knew most of it already. That turned out not to be the case. Looking at the review materials before starting the course, I found myself trying to remember how to calculate the volume of a sphere – it’s (4/3)πr3, in case you too have forgotten – and crunching logarithms in an attempt to answer e3.5=x (answer, x=33.12, obv).

The lectures are broken up into segments of about ten minutes, followed by multiple choice questions which you can do at your leisure, or not, and submit your answers towards a certificate of completion, or not. (Certificates you have to pay for. Everything else is free.) In the first lecture Adrià showed off a few culinary tricks; the second quickly had us working with Avogadro’s constant to determine the number of molecules in a given amount of matter. Homework involves an experiment to calibrate the accuracy of your oven, and some calculations to ascertain the number of various molecules in a recipe for aubergine with buttermilk sauce. Then there’s a test: ‘Estimate the concentration in mol/L of protein using the fact that the average protein is 300 amino acids long and the average amino acid has a mass of 110 amu.’ Er … I think I’ll phone a friend on that one. All this was by way of working with ‘the equation of the week’, which is how SPU27 is structured: it teaches, both by lecture and by hands-on demonstration, the profound and endlessly satisfying mystery of how mathematics penetrates into matter.

In summary, the course is more rigorous, and more educational, than I’d thought it would be. In considering the impact of MOOCs, it’s the educational component which is really exciting. Young people are still going to need degrees to get jobs to do the kind of work they want to do, and those degrees will for the most part involve actually physically going to university, not least because they’ll want to go, to meet each other, and to do all the other things young people should want to do while they’re young. Online education will have a profound shaping effect on the landscape in which they do that, while leaving many of the fundamentals intact. MOOCs, however, offer something simpler, and in its way purer: education for its own sake. They are purely educational, in the way that so much education increasingly isn’t, as it goes further and further in the direction of box-ticking and teaching to the test. Although it’s already possible to extract a great deal of use from MOOCs, as in the comp sci example I mentioned, I suspect a lot of the good they bring to the world won’t be in the form of anything useful. Instead they offer anyone who can be bothered the chance to learn things just for the sake of learning. As lifetimes get longer, there’s less need for people to stop learning, and less need for the experience of education to be something confined to ghettos of the young. Avogadro’s constant, which is used to tell you the number of molecules in a given amount of matter, is 6.022 x 1023. Isn’t that cool? And now I’m off to calibrate my oven by observing the melting point of sugar. I see in the course notes that the full protocol for doing that comes from a book called Cooking for Geeks.

[*] Linda Colley wrote about history MOOCs in the LRB of 26 September.