Great online lecture series

I know, lectures are so old fashioned – MOOCs are the new thing. And as I said before, I do think MOOCs, or more general “computer teachers” have a tremendous potential. Yet, I have to admit that I am still waiting to find an online course that really gets me excited and inspired. I don’t see why they shouldn’t, and they might get there one day, but currently most MOOCs seem rather mechanical to me, while a good lecturer may still build on millennia of experience with this medium, and on our natural instincts to interact with other people.

So, I think the lecture will still be around for a while – after all, it hasn’t been superseded by the book either. All the more reason to learn how to do it from the best, and thanks to youtube we don’t even have to leave the couch. Here’s my (rather eclectic) collection of three great lecture series. Happy to get hints about more noteworthy examples, especially from ecology.

Justice, from Michael Sandel, Harvard University

This lecture series on moral philosophy is maybe the best known of its kind on the Internet. The first video has currently around 4.5 million views, and (forgive me the pun, I couldn’t help it) not unjustly so – great setting, perfectly produced, and Michael Sandel is structured, funny and pedagogical bordering populism. I know a few people that didn’t like the lectures because they found them too basic or too slow (it’s true he’s taking his time between sentences), but I think he really delivers what this is supposed to be, namely an introduction for everyone that entertains, that doesn’t hurt and is easy to catch, and that does convey good information. Only the subtle advertisement for Harvard that pops up from time to time as well as the polished and politically correct student body is a bit annoying.

Introduction to Psychology, Paul Bloom, Yale University

Unlike Justice, which is really more of an event, Paul Bloom’s Introduction to Psychology is a regular class … there is really nothing special about that I could wrap my hands around, just that I really like it, I think it’s really well done – btw, Open Yale Courses, of which this lecture series is a part, is a really incredible source for good lectures in general.

Human Behavioral Biology, Robert Sapolsky, Stanford University

This again is a choice more easy to explain – Robert Sapolsky is colorful, intense, hilarious and simply a great lecturer. As this is a bit closer to my expertise, I was sometimes wondering whether all the examples and research results he discusses are really completely uncontroversial (he seems very convinced though), but they are certainly entertaining, and after all, it’s nearly ecology 😉 Anyway, a must see!

6 thoughts on “Great online lecture series

  1. typo, should be Michael Sandel, not Michael Sanders. 🙂

    I’ve heard that Sandel’s famous course is now offered as a MOOC, but from what I hear it’s not very good. It’s just the lecture videos, plus chatrooms and whatnot bolted on, apparently with almost no involvement from Sandel. But as I say, this is secondhand, and I could be misremembering. Anyway, clearly a good MOOC (assuming such a thing exists) isn’t easy to put together, and consists of much more than just videos of good lectures.


    • Cheers for the Sandel Jeremy – I think I was led astray by the youtube link that I embedded, weird that they spell his name wrong in their own video.

      Yes, I totally agree, apart from our lack of experience, a good MOOC will probably remain to be a lot more work than a lecture, probably also more than a book … cameras, copyrights, illustrations, figures, web programming … I wonder what this says about MOOCs as a medium for specialized scientific topics …


      • As long as we’re indulging our inner amateur philosophers…

        That moral dilemma with which Sandel begins his first lecture (would you kill one innocent person to save several others) is a version of what philosophers often call “trolley problems”. So called because one common set up is to imagine a runaway trolley heading toward a fork in the track. There’s one person tied to the track on one fork, and several people tied to the track on the other fork. There are all sorts of variants, but that’s the basic idea. These problems are supposed to serve as an “intuition pump”–a deliberately stripped-down situation that helps clarify why you think certain actions are moral or immoral. But they’re also controversial–one can argue that, far from clarifying our intuitions about more realistic situations, “trolley problems” just show that we have strange or conflicting intuitions about strangely-artificial situations devoid of any relevant context. See for a good discussion.

        There’s probably a good blog post to be written about the analogy between trolley problems, and deliberately-simplified theoretical models in ecology. Do simple models like, say, the Lotka-Volterra competition model “capture the essence” of the phenomenon being modeled, and reveal that essence clearly by stripping away details? Thereby serving as a “baseline case” which you need to understand in order to appreciate the effects of any complexities one might add? Or do such simplified models actually inhibit rather than aid understanding of more complex cases?

        It’s funny–I now find trolley problems in moral philosophy to mostly be unhelpfully oversimplified and artificial caricatures of any real moral dilemma. But I find simplified models in ecology to be hugely useful aids to understanding. But I’m not sure why in the one case I feel one way, and in the other case I feel the opposite way. Is there something about moral philosophy that makes “build up from an understanding of simple limiting cases to more complex cases” an ineffective or even counterproductive approach, whereas in ecology it’s a useful approach? I’m not sure…


        • Hi Jeremy, very interesting, the analogy between simple models in philosophy and ecology!

          I would say the idea of the trolley is not to find out whether the real world is just, but to create a “clean” environment, void of all real world noise, to learn about our reasons for considering certain actions just. That I find totally OK. Another thing would be if you use trolley models for deciding about real world situations, but is this really done? In Sandel’s lecture, it seems very clear to me that this is a thought experiment to make a point about different types of moral justifications.

          Similar things could be said about Lotka-Volterra, but with the important addition that these types of models have been used to infer suggestions about how to act in the real world. So I would say that, while in principle I find both the ecological and the philosophical strategically models equally valid for testing a specific idea, I have the feeling that the ecological models are more often extrapolated beyond their valid domain – but than again, I’m not a philosopher, so there may be a lot of nonsense based on trolleys that I’m not aware of.


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