Why I don’t buy from The Great Courses/Teaching Company anymore

Please look at the comments before responding; a lot has changed since this blog post was written, and in fact they have addressed the majority of my concerns about using technology to make the courses easier to finish and manage. As Maurice was kind enough to note in a comment on my About page, the company has come a long way, and I hope to have the time to test this out extensively. Thanks to Evelyn Mayfield at the Great Courses customer service who quickly answered my questions and was kind enough to see to it that my legacy purchases were up to date and available. I’m leaving the post up because I think it’s a useful example of responsiveness on the part of a company, not necessarily to my comment per se but to what are broader trends in how you add value to educational and entertainment products nowadays. It took a while, but I hope it’s an effort that pays off for them.

Let’s be clear about some things: The Teaching Company still has a roster of mostly excellent professors talking about interesting things, in a format that often hits a sweet spot between details and keeping the narrative going. The music courses by Robert Greenberg, William Cook’s Machiavelli lectures, and Alan Kors’ intellectual histories have greatly enriched my life, and I would recommend them along with the many others I have purchased through the years. While in the past I’ve felt that they were losing their way a bit by emphasizing overly general or gimmicky lecture sets, there was still plenty of great stuff there to keep me coming back. The bizarre “only reasonably priced when on sale” approach they took was only mildly inconvenient since everything goes on sale eventually. But I’m done with them now, and I worry it might be for good.

See, I still have 8 or so courses that have been gathering dust for a long time (I always bought the DVD when available). I finally moved them out of their cases into a binder because I felt guilty every time I looked at them. The last one I got through was Machiavelli, probably, because I had the initiative to rip it to my computer, and that’s where we get to the heart of the matter. I should say that I’ve raised all of these things with them in their surveys, but now I just want to get it off my chest as I throw out yet another WE WANT YOU BACK’d catalog without much thought.

The courses need to be inclusive in terms of format:  If I buy the DVD tier, then I should be able to download the drm-free video and mp3 versions whenever I feel like it. See, then I can start in my preferred mode of enjoying it, take it on my commute, walk the dogs with it, and have it in the background of my computer while I do something mindless, and then be right back to my old-fashioned DVDs when I want to. This would mean that it would take me weeks instead of years to get through a series, and if they expect me to get more of them, that’s in their best interest. I will not buy again until this is addressed; the rest of my suggestions are just things I think are good ideas but this one is a dealbreaker.

The courses ought to be integrated with smartphones: I’m pretty sure I’m not taking a big risk when I say that tablets and phones are here to say, in terms of Android or iOS. Here’s where the Teaching Company could really blow people away: let me have my account logged in on my phone, and then keep track of where I am in each class where I go; meanwhile I can toggle from video to audio and choose to stream or download. They can ask if you’re willing to contribute data anonymously in terms of how far you get, and see what they can do to improve “graduation” rates or what the most successful professors are doing at a more granular level, so the marketing wing is happy. They can make sure that I actually see the free lectures they are offering me, so that I get interested in things I might not normally like. They can let me star courses I’m interested in while I’m waiting for a bus so I can follow up later when there’s a sale. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if for some absurd reason the Co. did do this but only on a platform other than my android phone, I would reconsider what phone to buy next with that in mind. This is not a dealbreaker, since I can rig it myself once my first request is met, but it seems a no-brainer way to get a shot at younger generations and keep older customers.

Licensing for academic/educational use should be free or at least reasonable and easily available: There are many times when I would like to provide students access to a lecture here or there in order to get a different perspective on something we are studying, or even just to answer something that is outside the scope of the class but nevertheless interesting. With a little sensitivity to how much educators value hassle-free and inexpensive ways to expand their classrooms, the Teaching Co. could easily and unobtrusively market to a much bigger audience.

Make the introduction to every course free to view on the internet as a default. People want to talk to other people about these things. They want to show them these courses when they are excited about them. Help me to help you, and take that excellent mentality that led you to a generous return policy into the 21st century. They’ve taken a tentative step in this direction with online reviews on their site, but they need to go all in. The previews that are there embedded in the clunky website are fine, but I don’t want a movie trailer version of the professor: I need to be able to see and show how they do across an entire lecture, because that’s what shows you the real strengths of the experience.

As you go more digital, don’t get stupid about copyrights, licenses, and international issues. The market of English speakers who want to take these courses is potentially a lot larger than primarily English-speaking countries. Think big, rather than like a recording industry executive. Then double down by finding partners who can screen and develop courses in other languages, because that’s the future.

Netflix and Amazon Prime need content: The Co. should look at selling to them if things get dire, and ideally before that so you have some leverage. I’m sure the margins are razor-thin already, but working as a “prestige” addition to a stronger content distributor would go a long way to stabilizing the model so you can concentrate on getting great people to do great lectures instead of on what your catalog covers need to look like.

So yeah. It sucks, but that’s where we are today. To borrow from the company’s catalogs, I WANT YOU TO WANT ME BACK ENOUGH TO ACTUALLY DO THINGS THAT MATTER.

EDIT: Presidents Race Fan (in the comments) linked to the tablet-aimed iOS and Android apps that the company has released since this post was written. They are, at the moment, tablet oriented rather than phone, and I have no idea to what degree they integrate the inclusive format approach I advocated above. Still, progress is progress, and I’d love to hear from anyone getting a lot of use out of either version.

Edit: Please look at the comments as since this post was written there are a few options like Audible versions that will certainly help people new to the courses.

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21 Responses to Why I don’t buy from The Great Courses/Teaching Company anymore

  1. Scott says:

    This is Scott from The Teaching Company. You raise some great points and have some great ideas, and I hope you’ll be pleased to learn that a number of the things you’ve talked about are in the works in one form or another. I do indeed hope we can earn you back as a frequent viewer/listener. Perhaps if you’re interested we could make you part of a beta test for some of our mobile initiatives.

    • Roberto says:

      That’s kind of you to say, and I hope things work out with those initiatives. I would be glad to help out in a beta test if you think I would be of use. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Stephen says:

    I just found “Great Courses”. I particularly agree that having purchased teh DVD, it would be nice to also have a MP3 version so i caould listen while I exercise.

    • Roberto says:

      Yes, unfortunately there has been no movement on adding this sort of convenience to your account. In my view, with services like Audible providing seamless connections between Kindle and Audiobook versions of books, this is something where the technology is plainly available to make it something that is really handy for the person who can’t set aside consistent hours daily to keep up on a class, all of which could work great with a decent modern smartphone client. Failing that, at least giving the mp3/video versions to those that paid the max rate for the DVDs should be a no-brainer.

  3. Laryssa says:

    Thank you for posting such informative feedback about The Great Courses. I recently learned about this company and was excited to research my options and learn more. I do hope they implement the changes you mentioned especially to be able to watch the lectures in many formats. Thanks again for your concise review!

  4. Tait says:

    Dude, solid feedback analysis for The Great Courses. Saw them on 60 Minutes w G-1.
    I can’t believe they don’t have an app, or ability to offer mobile. With a reasonable price point, they could kill it while doing ‘good’ for society.

    It looks like they are based in Virgina. I used to live there, now I live in the Silicon Valley.

  5. Frank says:

    Wow! I couldn’t care less about any of this. When I’m walking or driving or daydreaming (that last one is an antidiluvian activity I cherish along with many of my generation), that’s all I’m doing. These courses substitute for television for me and I am in no race. I am 65 years old and I like taking years to get through these courses. It is a pleasure, not a task. I suggest Tait take one on language and grammar. (“Dude” indeed!)

  6. Willie Geoghegan says:

    The Great Courses is (are?) now (as of July 2013) available on audible.com. List prices are similar to typical GC sale prices. Audible member prices are about 60% of Audible list price. Best of all, all courses can be “purchased” for one credit. At the most expensive Audible subscription, that means you can get any GC for about $14-15. At the least expensive Audible subscription, you can get ny GC for about $12-13. Some of the shorter GC courses (some 6 hour ones) can be purchased for even less. I bought 1066: The Year That Changed Everything for about $10. Courses can be own landed or streamed. Note that I have only looked at audio courses. I don’t know if video courses are available on audible.com or not.

  7. Troy says:

    I’ve been downloading, and streaming, the courses for months. I listen to them on my cell phone while walking. Greek tragedy for 4 miles! Some courses would be better in the digital video format (e.g., astronomy or math). With so many universities offering free online courses now, I’d like to see the prices come down a bit. If the digital versions get under $50 (several are available from $15 to $35), I consider buying.

    • Roberto says:

      Yes, I think people buying in now have a host of options. It still kind of leaves those of us who bought a bunch of courses on DVD back in the day in the lurch, since you don’t get access to the lower-priced versions. My hope is that the company would grant you a license to the course at the tier you purchased, and allow for inexpensive, easy access to mp3 versions and the like so that I can actually finish some of these courses.

  8. Tom says:

    Stop whining, Roberto! The DVDs you purchased are now a sunk cost. Get over it. You haven’t been left in a lurch. You ripped the Machiavelli, so now rip your other courses to your computer and convert them to MP3s. If you don’t want to do that, then recoup your money by selling them on ebay or Amazon. Are you that spoiled and lazy that you need to have everything done for you, and that everything has to be convenient?

    • Roberto says:

      A couple of things, Tom. First, this post was written when there were few digital options apart from the relatively rudimentary mp3 download; they’ve come a long way since. Second, it’s entitled why *I* don’t buy from the Great Courses. Not why you shouldn’t, or why anyone else shouldn’t. I simply admire the level of accessibility that Amazon offers with their content, and it seems a logical way for the Great Courses to help me get through my existing courses faster. If nothing else, I wrote it in response to their catalogs: THEY WANT ME BACK. Well, they can make it easy and convenient, or they can wait until I get to it in my own good time.

      • David says:

        I totally agree with you, Roberto. The company has great material that took a lot of work, but they are struggling with the digital age. I think they need to outsource the “fulfillment” part of their business to a pro, maybe Amazon, to get to where they give the users what they want.

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