The Teaching Company and The Great Courses versus MOOCs

Logo for the Great Courses series featuring torch icon

Robert Greenberg recently wrote a Facebook post relating to a New York Times review article entitled “For This Class, Professors Pass Screen Test“. It’s substantively about The Teaching Company and their series The Great Courses (TGC); for convenience I’ll excerpt his comments in their entirety below:

A most interesting article on The Great Courses (TGC) appeared in the New York Times on Saturday. TGC has been featured in newspaper articles before: scads of articles, in fact, over the last 20-plus years. But those articles (at least the ones I’m aware of and I am aware of most of them) have always focused on the content of TGC offerings: that they are academic courses offered up on audio/video media. This article, written by the Times’ TV critic Neil Genzlinger, is different. It focuses on TGC as a video production company and on TGC courses as slick, professional, high-end television programs.

My goodness, how times have changed.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall my descriptions of TGC in its early days. I would rehash a bit of that if only to highlight the incredible evolution of the company from a startup to the polished gem it is today.

I made my first course back in May of 1993: the first edition of “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music”. We had no “set”; I worked in front of a blue screen (or a “traveling matte”). The halogen lighting created an unbelievable amount of heat and glare. The stage was only about 6 feet deep but about 20 feet wide. With my sheaf of yellow note paper clutched in my left hand, I roamed back-and-forth, in constant motion, teaching exactly the way I did in the classroom. I made no concessions to the medium; to tell the truth, it never occurred to me or my director at the time that we should do anything but reproduce what I did in the classroom. (My constant lateral movement did, however, cause great consternation among the camera people, who were accustomed to filming stationary pundits at CNN and gasbags at C-span. One of our camera-dudes, a bearded stoner who will remain nameless kept telling me “Man . . . I cannot follow you, man. Please, man, please!” He was a good guy though, and offered to “take my edge off” by lighting me up during our breaks. I wisely declined.)

We worked with a studio audience in those days: mostly retirees who were free to attend such recording sessions, many of whom fell asleep in their chairs after lunch or jingled change in their pockets or whose hearing aids started screaming sounds that they could not hear but I most certainly did. Most distracting were the white Styrofoam coffee cups; in the darkened studio their constant (if irregular) up-and-down motion reminded me of the “bouncing ball” from the musical cartoons of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.

I could go on (and I will, at some other time), though the point is made: in its earliest days TGC was simply recording more-or-less what you would hear in a classroom or lecture hall. I am reminded of the early days of TV, during which pre-existing modes of entertainment – the variety show, theatrical productions, puppet shows – were simply filmed and broadcast. In its earliest permutation, the video medium did not create a new paradigm so much as record old ones. But this changed soon enough, and the same is true for TGC. Within a few years TGC became a genuine production company, in which style, look, and mode of delivery became as important as the content being delivered. And this is exactly as it should be. Audio and video media demand clarity and precision; the “ahs” and “ums” and garbled pronunciations and mismatched tenses that we tolerate in a live lecture are intolerable in media, because we are aware of the fact that in making media they can (and should) be corrected.

Enough. Read the article. Then buy another TGC course; preferably one of mine. And while watching and/or listening, let us be aware, as best as we can, of the tens-of-thousands of hours that go into making these courses – these productions – the little masterworks that they indeed are.


My response to his post with some thoughts of my own follows:

This is an interesting, but very germane, review. As someone who’s both worked in the entertainment industry and followed the MOOC (massively open online courseware) revolution over the past decade, I very often consider the physical production value of TGCs offerings and have been generally pleased at their steady improvement over time. Not only do they offer some generally excellent content, but they’re entertaining and pleasing to watch. From a multimedia perspective, I’m always amazed at what they offer and that generally the difference between the video versus the audio only versions isn’t as drastic as one might otherwise expect. Though there are times that I think that TGC might include some additional graphics, maps, etc. either in the course itself or in the booklets, I’m impressed that they still function exceptionally well without them.

Within the MOOC revolution, Sue Alcott’s Coursera course Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets is still by far the best produced multi-media course I’ve come across. It’s going to take a lot of serious effort for other courses to come up to this level of production however. It’s one of the few courses which I think rivals that of The Teaching Company’s offerings thus far. Unfortunately, the increased competition in the MOOC space is going to eventually encroach on the business model of TGC, and I’m curious to see how that will evolve and how it will benefit students. Will TGC be forced to offer online fora for students to interact with each other the way most MOOCs do? Will MOOCs be forced to drastically increase their production quality to the level of TGC? Will certificates or diplomas be offered for courseware? Will the subsequent models be free (like most MOOCs now), paid like TGC, or some mixture of the two?

One area which neither platform seems to be doing very well at present is offering more advanced coursework. Naturally the primary difficulty is in having enough audience to justify the production effort. The audience for a graduate level topology class is simply far smaller than introductory courses in history or music appreciation, but those types of courses will eventually have to exist to make the enterprises sustainable – in addition to the fact that they add real value to society. Another difficulty is that advanced coursework usually requires some significant work outside of the lecture environment – readings, homework, etc. MOOCs seem to have a slight upper hand here while TGC has generally relied on all of the significant material being offered in a lecture with the suggestion of reading their accompanying booklets and possibly offering supplementary bibliographies. When are we going to start seeing course work at the upper-level undergraduate or graduate level?

The nice part is that with evolving technology and capabilities, there are potentially new pedagogic methods that will allow easier teaching of some material that may not have been possible previously. (For some brief examples, see this post I wrote last week on Latin and the digital humanities.) In particular, I’m sure many of us have been astounded and pleased at how Dr. Greenberg managed the supreme gymnastics of offering of “Understanding the Fundamentals of Music” without delving into traditional music theory and written notation, but will he be able to actually offer that in new and exciting ways to increase our levels of understanding of music and then spawn off another 618 lectures that take us all further and deeper into his exciting world? Perhaps it comes in the form of a multimedia mobile app? We’re all waiting with bated breath, because regardless of how he pulls it off, we know it’s going to be educational, entertaining and truly awe inspiring.

Following my commentary, Scott Ableman, the Chief Marketing Officer for TGC, responded with the following, which I find very interesting:

Chris, all excellent observations (and I agree re Alcott’s course). I hope you’ll be please to learn that the impact of MOOCs, if any, on The Great Courses has been positive, in that there is a rapidly growing awareness and interest in the notion that lifelong learning is possible via digital media. As for differentiating vs. MOOCs, people who know about The Great Courses generally find the differences to be self-evident:

  1. Curation: TGC scours the globe to find the world’s greatest professors;
  2. Formats: The ability to enjoy a course in your car or at home on your TV or on your smartphone, etc.;
  3. Lack of pressure: Having no set schedule and doing things at your own pace with no homework or exams (to be sure, there are some for whom sitting at a keyboard at a scheduled time and taking tests and getting a certificate is quite valuable, but that’s a different audience).

The Great Courses once were the sole claimant to a fourth differentiator, which is depth. Obviously, the proliferation of fairly narrow MOOCs provides as much depth on many topics, and in some cases addresses your desire for higher level courses. Still TGC offers significant depth when compared to the alternatives on TV or audio books. I must say that I was disappointed that Genzlinger chose to focus on this notion that professors these days “don’t know how to lecture.” He suggests that TGC is in the business of teaching bad lecturers how to look good in front of a camera. This of course couldn’t be further from the truth. Anybody familiar with The Great Course knows that among its greatest strengths is its academic recruiting team, which finds professors like Robert Greenberg and introduces them to lifelong learners around the world.


Author: Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

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