Week one is just getting us started with four videos totalling just over an hour of lecture. The format is surprisingly similar to the traditional lecture – slides on the screen, and the lecturer’s voice accompanying note-writing. It feels strangely out-of-touch – it’s odd to think that the person speaking is a genuine professor (you can look him up at UPenn!) and that there are actual students taking the course in an actual lecture hall (as part of a degree in Market and Social Systems Engineering, in case you’re interested). There are also a few pond differences – no lecturer has ever started off with “greetings and salutations”, as far as I can recall, and there’s something uncomfortably American-Idol-ish about the opening “I’m Michael Kearns, and this… (dramatic pause) …is Networked Life”. I expect sequinned backing singers and dry ice any moment now.
Once we get into it, however, I’m rather impressed. The distracting font aside (Comic sans? Really?), the content is well-presented and engaging, with just the right balance of theory and demonstrations (modelling the spread of a forest fire, then explaining how to “mathematise”, sorry, “mathematize” the pattern of spread). I particularly like the directions to empirical work and other applications – for example, the mathematicians’ Erdos Number (how many links via co-authored papers to the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos – the lower the number, the higher the prestige – getting harder as he died in 1996); or a six-degrees-of-separation experiment from the pre-email 1960s where participants had to get a letter to a named but unknown-to-them recipient via the fewest intermediaries. Terrific stuff.
These examples were by way of explanation of the “navigation problem” – in an increasingly networked world, how to we gain an introduction to, for example, a particular expert without direct contact? We know our immediate colleagues but colleagues-of-colleagues become increasingly distant and, without a view of the whole network, it is impossible to know who knows who, if you see what I mean. Imagine an endless line of requests for retweets, hoping that the target person will eventually see the message but not knowing how it will get there.
There’s a reasonable amount of maths but if you can read the phrase “let p represent the proportion of area that is forested” without coming out in a rash, you’ll cope. The quizzes at the end of each section of video do require a surprising amount of application – it helps if you’ve taken notes from the lectures – as you’re asked to apply your new-found knowledge to a set of problems. The technology has the occasional hiccup – for example, the audio continues with a few seconds of freeze on the video – but nothing that gets in your way. The lecturer also seems to have some kind of pointer/drawing tool which occasionally whizzes around the screen and does some etch-a-sketch-style additions to the slides – mostly underlining and the occasional slightly wonky arrow to reinforce a point.
Overall, I have two A4 pages of notes from week one, a smug quiz score of 31/31, and a feeling that although I’ve spent much of the afternoon watching internet videos, it’s all been rather worthwhile.