The Great Courses, Part II

I was intrigued by The Great Courses ad in the Economist last week, between articles on the impact of technology on changing education.   And then The New York Times offers us an updated view of the company.

The Great Courses has now produced 500 courses, and has sold over 15 million copies, usually a dozen or more 30-minute audio or video lectures each.  Students are motivated by personal or professional interests, or simply “expanding their minds.”  “We have binge watchers like Netflix does,” The Great Courses said.

Of particular interest is that the full production studios deal with an increasing number of professors who don’t usually sage-on-the-stage lecture.

In addition to professors who have to be purged of classroom habits that don’t work on screen, an increasing challenge for the Great Courses staff is professors who don’t know how to lecture at all. The “flipped classroom” model that is taking hold in academia — in-class time is devoted to hands-on activity rather than one-way instruction — means that some professors have little experience with organizing and delivering a traditional 30-minute talk.

“Now, fewer and fewer people lecture,” Ms. McDonald said. “That’s making it harder for us.”

Putting a course into a lecture-only format has difficulties, but the experience is also more than a paycheck or recognition:

“It had a transformative effect on me as a teacher,” said Jennifer Paxton, who teaches at the Catholic University of America and has recorded two history courses for the company and is working on a third. “One of the things they told me is that I should not hold back from really demonstrating the enthusiasm that I felt for the material. I think that, in a sense, I had drunk the academic Kool-Aid: You present something in a serious, sober manner.”

For instance, her Great Courses coaches encouraged her to demonstrate graphically what happened in a medieval battle.

“It was really like being unchained,” she said. “That experience was very profound. I came out and demonstrated the act of chopping the head off a horse. I had never done anything like that in lectures before.”

The article didn’t say whether it was a simulation or a real horse.  We’ll have to buy the DVDs for that.


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