Bill Gates-backed history course now free online

Bill Gates-backed history course now free online



The Big History Project, the story of the past on the largest possible canvas, is now available as a free online courseBig History was originally a university course taught at Macquarie University by its inventor, historian David Christian. It spans the history of the universe from the big bang until now, explaining how galaxies, stars and planets came to be, and then how life evolved and eventually led to humanity. It also glimpses into where our future history may be heading. Five years ago, when Bill Gates heard about it, he paid for the development of a big history high- school course, which is now being piloted in schools in Australia and the US. His support has led to this MOOC, which is pitched at a level suitable for junior high school and older. It takes six to eight hours to complete.Bill Gates and a story of everything

PUBLISHED: 19 AUG 2013 04:01:00 | UPDATED: 03 OCT 2013 11:50:28


Bill Gates is an inveterate self-educator and about five years ago he was watching a DVD series of lectures called Big History by ­Australian historian David Christian.

“I had never seen anything quite like it,” Gates wrote on his blog.

“David created a framework for understanding literally all of history, ever, from the Big Bang to present day.”

It was history as no one had ever presented it before. Historians, the seekers of context, had, until Christian, avoided the ultimate context.

Gates was galvanised. He tracked down Christian, who has spent most of his career at Sydney’s Macquarie University, but was at that time in California at San Diego State.

Gates came to San Diego, they met, and two hours later they had a plan. Gates would provide the funding and the expertise to ­create a Big History syllabus for high schools. Resources and course material would be made available online for any school around the world to use for free.

Five years later that vision is well on the way to completion. Christian and the Big History Institute at Macquarie University are working with a project team in Seattle and Big History is in its second year of being taught in high schools as a pilot project.

Last year two schools in Australia and five in the US taught Big History. This year more than 40 schools in Australia and more than 70 in the US are using the syllabus. The aim is to have more than 100 schools in both countries teaching the course next year.

It all started in the late 1980s when ­Christian was teaching Russian history at Macquarie. The Cold War was ending and the Soviet Union was in the middle of its desperate push for reform driven by Mikhail ­Gorbachev. Christian’s subject was at the centre of world attention, with everyone wanting to know why this was happening and where it was going. But Christian found himself bothered by the narrowness of his subject.


“I became increasingly obsessed with the idea that what I was teaching was a tribal narrative. The subliminal message was that the world is divided into tribes and I was teaching about the Russian tribe,” he says.

“I began to wonder about the possibility of teaching a history of humanity.”

As he thought it through he realised “you have to talk biology, you have to talk about how humans evolved as a species”.

“To do that you have to go back and talk about evolution on large scales. To do that you have to talk about the history of the planet. That takes you into astronomy.

“I began to think – could you teach a history course which began with the origins of the universe? Why not place human history in its larger context?”

In 1989, Christian had his first go at big ­history, putting together a first-year subject at Macquarie, drawing on lecturers from many disciplines.

“It was a mess,” Christian says now. But the reaction from students was such that he stuck at it, steadily improving his material and his approach.

He says he always believed it would be ideal for schools but, until Gates made his offer, he had no practical way of expanding it to school level. To make it work for high-school students (it’s aimed at year 9) much work has been done in improving the pedagogy and making it a compelling experience for teenagers.

The course is in ten units, the first five ­covering the story of the big bang, the appearance of galaxies, stars, solar systems and planets, up to the emergence of life on earth. The second five units cover human history, culminating in the incredible acceleration of human power and knowledge up to present day and beyond. It also looks at where we and the universe may be heading.


The feedback from schools is that it’s an eye-opener for students. Subjects that ­students thought were boring suddenly appear in a new light.

Nuclear physics is what was going on in stars to create the elements to make the planets and create life. Chemistry and geology governed the conditions on our planet and others and made it possible for life to emerge here. Biology reveals how life evolved to the extraordinary diversity it has today.

History, anthropology and various types of cultural studies shed light on how the human race developed. Economics, politics and sociology are the tools we use to understand the complex structures and relationships in human societies today.

“Now they can say, ‘wait a second, this is why the periodic table is important to my life because it surrounds me everywhere I look,’ ” says Tracy Sullivan, a former teacher who directs special projects for the Big ­History Institute.

She says schools have found that in the first half of the course students who are not scientifically oriented suddenly want to do physics. And in the second half the science nerds get interested in history.

A key part of the course is what Christian calls claim testing – analysing why we accept the claims that are made about the past and our human origins. It teaches ­students to approach what they are taught critically and examine the underlying reasons why we decide which are true.

Should big history be taught at the start of high school to give students a context for everything they learn?

“Absolutely,” says Christian. “It’s the umbrella of knowledge,” adds Sullivan.

Christian believes it can also be taught at a simpler level in primary school and even preschool.


The project is funded by a Gates private company, bgC3 (Bill Gates Catalyst 3), which is described as a think tank, incubator and venture capitalist firm. It is separate from the Gates Foundation.

Christian says the Big History course material will always be available to schools at no cost and the aim is to spread it as far as possible around the world. Sullivan says a key part of the course design is its flexibility.

It can be run as a 20, 50 or 100 hours per year course. It can be offline or online. It can be offered to kids of non-English speaking background, classes of mixed ability or enrichment classes. It also has to work in all countries and all cultures.

“It’s not about us saying, ‘here’s a course and here’s how you teach it’. It’s about us saying, ‘here’s a course and how can it work within your framework’, ” she says.

She invites teachers who are interested to register at or contact her at Macquarie’s Big History Institute.

Later this year a version of the big history course will be available online as a massive open online course, for anyone to study.

The Australian Financial Review


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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