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.