Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Listening to college

Over at The Quick and the Ed, an exceptionally interesting policy blog, Education Sector policy manager Kevin Carey has posted his thoughts about a presumed competition between audio courses such as those produced by The Teaching Company and free videos of Yale courses. (One could use other examples to make the point: Barnes and Noble has started its own line of audio courses, for example, and Berkeley and MIT have also made courses available online.) I always enjoy Carey's posts and generally find them convincing, but I think he misses the key issues when he assumes that the university courses can displace the commercial versions. (I feel the difference between these formats acutely today, as it happens, because I gave the first of three lectures I will give in this summer's Adult Community Exploration Series at Grinnell; in format, ACES is roughly a shortened, free, live version of a Teaching Company course. I have spent a lot of the past week adapting materials from my college courses to the ACES format and therefore pondering the transformations that process involves.)

I have listened to some of those Teaching Company tapes and have also listened to some of the online college courses, especially a Berkeley course in economics. I enjoy both formats but find them fundamentally different. Aside from the quality of academic content (which is generally strong in both modes), the appeal of The Teaching Company's courses lies in their ability to make the listener feel included in the world of the course. The lecturer speaks directly to the customer who buys the Teaching Company course, carefully contextualizing the materials for an intelligent but nonspecialist audience. The lectures are self-contained; the listener may feel inspired to read some primary materials, but such reading is not expected or required. The Teaching Company sells the feeling of full membership in an excellent lecturer's audience for the price of about a hundred dollars, depending on the course.

A university course, however, offers that sense of inclusion only to students who have done preparatory work for each class, and even for online observers who do that work, the experience of the free university courses is fundamentally alienating. The professor addresses the students in the room, takes care of the normal housekeeping that a college class requires, refers to events and people and gestures that are inaccessible to the online observer. I come to these classes having spent all but one year of my adult life in college classrooms, and even I find the format prohibitively unsociable. Such courses provide valuable guidance to exceptionally determined and disciplined students--a goal I support enthusiastically--but for better and for worse, they will not replace the more broadly welcoming format of The Teaching Company.

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