Bill Gates Promotes Professor’s Online Course at TED

Long Beach, Calif. — Bill Gates apparently listens to lecture podcasts while on the treadmill. That’s what David Christian, then a history professor at San Diego State University, learned one day when Mr. Gates called him in his university office, explaining that he had heard his recorded lecture and wanted to meet.

That meeting led Mr. Gates, a founder of Microsoft, to support a free online syllabus of Mr. Christian’s unusual course, called “Big History,” that gives a sweeping multidisciplinary overview of world history from the Big Bang to the Industrial Revolution. The arrangement was announced today during the annual TED conference, at which Mr. Gates led a series of talks that he personally selected, including one by Mr. Christian.

In an interview, Mr. Christian, now at Macquarie University, in Australia, said he felt that the Big History course provides a unifying narrative that today’s students hunger for. “We need to link the physical with the biological,” he said. “No one else is doing it, so I’m going to have a shot.” Mr. Gates heard the version of the course produced by the Teaching Company, which sells recorded lectures.

The free online syllabus for the course is intended for high-school students, and Mr. Christian said he wanted to test it in schools before making the full release available. At the moment, only an overview of the course and its goals are online.

Another educator chosen by Mr. Gates to speak at TED was Salman Khan, a financial-industry worker who started an online university from the closet of his bedroom, where he has produced more than 2,000 short educational videos. Mr. Khan described his vision of education in which professors assign lecture videos as homework, freeing up class time for more personal coaching by professors on student projects. The talk got the biggest standing ovation of the day.

“I think you just got a glimpse of the future of education,” said Mr. Gates, as Mr. Khan left the stage.

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