The Floating University

Great Big Ideas:
An Entire Undergraduate Education While Standing on One Foot

The Inaugural Course of The Floating University

Steven Pinker speaks about the personal rewards that come from learning big ideas. You don't need to be a student enrolled at a traditional college or university to take a Floating University course with some of the greatest professors from around the world. Great Big Ideas is available to anyone, anywhere, for free.

How Great Big Ideas Works

The Floating University crafted the Great Big ideas lecture series to fit into a variety of learning styles and levels of engagement. For students who took the course at Harvard, Yale, and Bard, the syllabus required weekly readings from the accompanying course pack, along with weekly discussion seminars that devoted time to exploring the lecture content in a group format and drawing connections between the academic disciplines represented by Great Big Ideas lecturers. Individual learners were encouraged to follow along with the readings and participate in online discussions with enrolled students and participating professors and experts, as well as complete quizzes and case studies to bolster understanding and dynamic thinking.

Now that the entirety of Great Big Ideas is online and public, you have maximal flexibility as an independent learner. You can purchase the course pack and progress through the syllabus on a weekly basis, test your comprehension and retention with FU quizzes, and participate in online discussions based on prompts designed by FU professors and experts. Or you can simply watch the lectures at your own pace, choosing the subjects that interest you most. Teachers at colleges and high schools are encouraged to adopt our course materials in any way they like, and individuals are welcome to organize their own study groups.

Those looking for a more guided Floating University experience should check out the syllabus below. Otherwise keep reading to learn more about the structure and features of the online Great Big Ideas experience, or simply jump to the Lectures page to start learning now!

NOTE: If you are an institution of higher learning interested in using Floating University course materials, please read our Terms of Use. All Floating University materials are copyrighted and may not be hosted on outside domains.

Great Big Ideas Syllabus

Where to Get The Readings

The Great Big Ideas course is best experienced alongside the readings listed in the syllabus, chosen by Floating University lecturers to reinforce key concepts and provide nuanced context. Many of these readings are freely available online, but the majority can only be accessed by purchasing an online course book provided by University Readers. NOTE: The floating University does not profit off of the readings. The cost of the course pack is determined by standard academic copyright rates.

To purchase the digital course pack, please follow the instructions below:

  • (1.) Log on to
  • (2.) Create an account or log in if you have an existing account.
  • (3.) Easy-to-follow instructions will guide you through the rest of the ordering process. The cost is $110.18 and payment can be made by all major credit cards or with an electronic check.
  • (4.) You MUST list your STATE as ONLINE, and your SCHOOL as THE FLOATING UNIVERSITY.
  • (5.) After purchasing, you can access your digital pack by logging into your account and clicking My Digital Materials to get started on your readings right away.

In addition to course pack readings and online articles, the Great Big Ideas syllabus suggests the following books, which must be purchased separately:

Learning Goals

• Learn the fundamentals of the 12 Great Big Ideas subjects.

  • After watching each lecture and meeting the assessment benchmarks, you will have a strong grasp on the central concepts of the study of demography, physics, political philosophy, linguistics, economics, psychology, sociology, investment, biomedicine, the arts, the classics, and education. 

• Draw connections between disciplines.

  • Using the core intellectual conceits provided by Floating University lecturers, you’ll gain fresh and unexpected insights into each field that would not arise if you learned about each topic in isolation. The dynamic approaches to problem solving you’ll learn from the course will permanently enrich your perspective and provide you with multidisciplinary tools to use in your life and career. 

• Participate in academic discourse.

  • Most correct solutions are reached through discussion, debate, and argument, and Great Big Ideas facilitates these dimensions of learning through our online e-learning platform. Students are encouraged to participate actively in the discussion questions posed by each Great Big Ideas lecturer, moderated by experts, and to post their own questions about what they don’t understand.

President Leon Botstein of Bard College examines the promise of The Floating University.

Course Features

Every Floating University lecture comes with an array of supporting materials designed by experts to provide context and support for the key facts and big ideas offered by the lecturer. When you click on a lecture page, you'll automatically land on the full-length HD video. Should you desire a deeper dive, however, you can explore transcripts, outlines, review questions, study guides, and even take comprehension quizzes and participate in online discussions.

Our course materials include:

  • Transcript: A full transcript of the entire lesson, with the five segments delineated for your convenience. To find the exact passage you're looking for, try using the search function on your browser and entering a few words.
  • Outline: An in-depth, point-by-point outline of the entire lesson, with the five segments delineated.
  • Review Questions: Questions designed by FU professors to test your knowledge of core Great Big Ideas concepts.
  • Glossary of Terms: Succinct definitions of the most important terms and concepts from the lectures.
  • Online Resources: FU lectuers' recommended online destinations for learning more about Great Big Ideas disciplines.
  • Online Discussions

    Each lecture in The Great Big Ideas aims to teach you everything a non-professional needs to know about a subject in less than 60 minutes: what are the key questions in the field, and what are the methods for answering those inquiries? The ultimate question then becomes: "Why does this field matter?" In a world of limited time and resources, what are the merits of studying one field to the exclusion of another? How do you decide which field to pursue? In the course of answering these question, each lecturer will present his discipline as a unique way of looking at the world.

    And yet, every discipline has its limitations. You cannot solve every problem in the world through Physics alone, nor Sociology. In fact, many of the problems that have emerged today do not fit neatly into any one discipline, but lie in the gaps between them. Therefore, this course invites an interplay between the disciplines. As such FU encourages all students to participate rigorously in all course discussions. Below every video lecture you'll find discussion prompts written by FU professors that link to our Facebook where you can join in on the academic discourse and recommend The Floating University to friends and family.


    Last but not least, every Great Big Ideas lecture is accompanied by optional video and readings quizzes.

    For many people testing has a negative association from high school pop quizzes and the like, which ask students to recall factual information in a rote fashion. The Floating University approaches quizzes differently, using the concept inventory method. A burgeoning advance in pedagogical method, concept inventory quizzes ask students to apply the critical thinking and core ideas of learning materials to problems, assessing understanding, not memorization. Each lecture in the Great Big Ideas course comes with a ten-question multiple choice quiz that allows students to demonstrate mastery over the material, and for the most committed FUers following the syllabus, there's an additional five-question reading quiz.

    NOTE: The Floating University does not confer accreditation or certification. Quizzes are designed for the edification of the user, though it is possible that students enrolled at universities or colleges could petition their administrations to consider FU assessment materials as part of independent study credits.

    Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University explains what FU can do for you.