Project Tuva or Bust: How Microsoft’s Spin on Feynman Could Change the Way We Learn

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding, they learn by some other way—by rote or something,” physicist Richard Feynman once said. “Their knowledge is so fragile!”

Maybe Feynman’s brain was big enough to simply “learn by understanding”—sucking in and comprehending complex realities in a single glance. But what I think he actually meant was that people should learn by exploring and investigating, rather than just memorizing. Only then would their knowledge be useful and durable.

What makes Microsoft Research’s new Project Tuva website so wonderful is not just that it puts some of Feynman’s most famous physics lectures online, but that it invites viewers to explore the subject matter in exactly the way Feynman would have recommended. The Caltech scientist was famous in part for for his lucid way of explaining things like gravity and quantum mechanics—so the lectures certainly stand on their own as educational set-pieces. But the transcripts, note-taking tools, and multimedia “extras” that now show up alongside the videos make the material even more entertaining, accessible, and, well, explorable.

Project Tuva was unveiled last week. It’s named after the central Asian country Feynman famously and somewhat quixotically wanted to visit before he died. (He never got permission from the Soviet Union, of which it was then a part, as his friend Ralph Leighton chronicled in his 1991 book Tuva or Bust!) The site uses Microsoft’s Silverlight software, a Web-based multimedia player similar to Adobe’s Flash platform, to showcase a series of lectures that Feynman gave at Cornell University in 1964. The lectures were filmed by the BBC for broadcast in the United Kingdom, and weren’t available to Web viewers until Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, a longtime Feynman admirer, purchased the rights and asked Microsoft Research to find a way to host digital versions online.

Project Tuva screen shot“I said we could host them, but we could also do something much more interesting with it,” says Curtis Wong, who leads a small division of Microsoft Research called the Next Media Research group. I’ve known Wong for years and I make a point of following his work, because he’s always got some great new idea about how to take a cultural resource and increase its value through multimedia technology.

For the concepts behind Project Tuva, Wong told me by phone this week, he reached back to three projects he led in the mid-1990s. The first was an interactive tour, published on CD-ROM, of the Barnes Foundation’s collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings outside Philadelphia. The second was another CD-ROM about Leonardo da Vinci, built around a digital facsimile of one of Leonardo’s notebooks, the Codex Leicester, which also happens to be owned by Bill Gates. (See this May 2008 column for more on those two projects.) The third was an interactive video documentary, developed as a demonstration for PBS but never aired, in which the program’s closed-captioning information was interspersed with hyperlinks that led to related articles in Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia.

Each project represented a step in the development of what Wong calls his information learning model for interactive media; it’s also been called the “contextual pyramid” or “ECR,” for engagement, context, and reference. It’s a simple idea: first, you hook someone—whether they’re using a CD-ROM, watching a video, or visiting a website or a museum—with a story or an object that produces an immediate emotional impact. Then, at the very moment they’re most engaged and curious, you offer them context that broadens their understanding. Finally, you provide a deep reference layer, for the people who get so intrigued that they want to know a lot more.

I’d love to explain all the lovingly crafted ways in which the Barnes and Leonardo CD-ROMs and the PBS demo implemented this model, but it would take too long. Jump back to 2008 or so: as soon as Wong found out about Bill Gates’ quest to put the Feynman lectures online, he realized that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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