James Nowick

Credit: Steve Zylius

“This is providing people with the ability to learn on their own terms,” says chemistry professor and open-education advocate James Nowick, whose videotaped classes have drawn more than 20,000 online viewers worldwide.

James Nowick has got the world on a screen. He’s logged into a big map of the planet and is cross-referencing it with a YouTube list of the top countries in which people have viewed one of his online chemistry lectures.

“India, Ethiopia and Botswana,” says the acclaimed UC Irvine chemistry professor. “Botswana? That’s fascinating! I’d like to be a fly on the wall there to hear why they want to watch me.”

Nowick first began videotaping his classes in 2009, when he feared that state budget-related furloughs might keep him from teaching the entire course. Now anyone anywhere in the world can view any of his or his colleagues’ lectures any time, for free.

Thanks to Nowick’s enthusiastic partnership with open-education leaders at UC Irvine Extension, the entire undergraduate chemistry curriculum — except for labs — has been videotaped and will be posted online.

Dubbed Open Chemistry, it’s the most comprehensive chemistry series ever offered online at no cost to students, tutors, self-learners and others. UC Irvine is launching the program during Open Education Week, March 11-15. Open education refers to free online learning.

“This is providing people with the ability to learn on their own terms,” Nowick says. “I’m very excited. This is something we can do as a department at minimal cost to benefit our students, California and many other places.”

While other universities and private services post single classes or printed materials for a chemistry major online, Open Chem lets viewers start with Chem 1A: General Chemistry and finish with Chem 131C: Thermodynamics and Chemical Dynamics.

“The Department of Chemistry has broken new ground by allowing students to follow a coherent and integrated pathway toward full mastery of undergraduate chemistry,” says Gary Matkin, UC Irvine’s dean of continuing education, distance learning and summer session.

Open Chem has already won praise from outside experts.

“This is a wonderful gift from a superb institution in the world’s greatest university system,” says Marshall Smith, undersecretary of education for President Bill Clinton, senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a strong proponent of online education.

UC Irvine chemistry department, founded by future Nobel laureate F. Sherwood Rowland and others in 1965, is one of the best in the world.

“Our video lectures are delivered by the most respected professors and researchers in the field of chemistry,” notes School of Physical Sciences Dean Kenneth Janda. “UCI’s Department of Chemistry is one of the nation’s largest producers of graduates with B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry, consistently ranked in the top 10th percentile by the National Research Council.”

Nowick, 48, is an innovative chemist and exuberant teacher who has been at UC Irvine for 21 years. His office is a cheerful jumble of charts, awards, academic papers, three-dimensional movie glasses and models made of wooden tongue depressors. The glasses and tongue depressors help his team fully visualize their cutting-edge work on the molecular chemistry of Alzheimer’s and other crippling diseases.

He approaches his library of videotaped lectures as one more experiment, delightedly watching the curve of usage grow exponentially. What began as an aid to students who had been out sick or were boning up for final exams has drawn, to date, more than 20,000 viewers worldwide.

Nowick says taping the lectures was not hard: “If you’re already teaching 441 students, it’s not a problem to have a video camera up in the 13th row.” The process has helped him sharpen his presentation skills, he says.

These are not Korean dance or kitty videos. Nowick’s talks cover such subjects as “Molecular Modeling with PyMOL: Using Molecular Mechanics to Generate Three-Dimensional Molecular Structures.” But they’re popular.

“This lecture is awesome!” commented one viewer.

Open Chem is part of a fertile, ever-expanding open-education world. Nowick is careful to distinguish it from for-credit programs, comparing it instead to auditing classes. He’s not ready to teach an online class that requires intensive interaction with tens of thousands of students at a time, as a for-credit class would require, and isn’t sure how effective lab work could be done in a virtual setting.

He firmly believes there’s an important place for free, high-quality classes like those in Open Chem, with no pressure to complete them within a certain time frame in order to receive a piece of paper. For eager learners and tutors in other lands, the lectures offer a chance to learn from U.S. professors who are leading the way in chemistry advances.

In return, Nowick gets global emails that he finds gratifying. He replies to some, including those from a graduate student in Nepal who begins every missive with “My Respected Sir.”

After his first lectures went online, fans in Canada, Australia, Virginia and elsewhere clamored for more taped sessions of campus chemistry classes. Nowick found a kindred spirit in Larry Cooperman, director of UCI OpenCourseWare and a strong advocate for the democratizing power of open education. His staff has now taped and posted every lecture from 15 undergraduate and select graduate chemistry courses. Nowick calls Cooperman’s team members “wonderful, superb.”

He helped persuade fellow professors to let their lectures be videotaped too. “I told them that it’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s extremely rewarding. It will bring a lot of attention to our department,” Nowick says. “And we’re helping California and the rest of the world gain access to high-quality information.”