Before Coursera, There Were the ‘Great Courses’

arenachapelHave any of you watched any of the videos produced for The Great Courses series? We’re pretty big fans of these in our house as sources of enrichment and edutainment. My mathematically-inclined son has watched  a number of them (along with his dad), including The Joy of Mathematics, Zero to Infinity: A History of Numbers, An Introduction to Number Theory, and Discrete Mathematics — as well as some music ones, including (aptly, for him) How Music and Mathematics Relate. My husband and I are currently watching A History of European Art, which I chose as a birthday gift because I’ve strolled through too many museums feeling I don’t really know enough about what I’m looking at.

I’m enjoying the course a lot. The lecturer, William Kloss, is not only erudite but endearingly enamored of his subject: he seems to stay pretty much on script, but every so often he gets this little extra glimmer in his eye or urgency in his voice and you know he just can’t help himself — he has to share how he feels about something. He has a lot of ground to cover in just 48 lectures and as a result has to skip along quite briskly (we got to peer closely at only three works by Michelangelo, for instance) — but that said, I think both members of this Teeny-tiny Open Offline Course would have been happy with a little less attention to medieval altarpieces, however revealing the distinctions between their various reworkings of the identical scriptural scenes.

It’s been impossible to sit through these lectures without thinking about their much larger cousins, the MOOCs. MOOCs, after all, are built around recorded lectures by eminent specialists. I discovered that the booklets accompanying our DVD set include some review questions, so if we were so inclined, we could take that extra step or two to help with comprehension and retention. Of course, we can’t ask Professor Kloss to check our answers (but then, that can’t happen in MOOCs either) — but we’d have each other, and I feel confident our ‘peer evaluation’ would be pretty rigorous. We’re not doing the fairly dull provided questions, though: we’re just watching the videos.


And yet we do have a lot of questions about what we’re seeing. They aren’t usually of the “reiterate the main distinction between Romanesque and Gothic architecture” kind but are, more typically, challenges to Professor Kloss’s conclusions or effusions. For one thing, we find the vocabulary of art criticism — or, perhaps more justly, his vocabulary — kind of impressionistic, if you’ll forgive the pun, and sometimes his rhapsodies about the wondrous unforgettable quality of one piece or another strike us as special pleading more than reasoned analysis. It would be nice to be able to  press him on just what he means, now and then. We often wonder about details of the paintings that he doesn’t choose to comment on, but of course he carries on quite impervious to our curiosity. Sometimes there are technical issues we’d like to understand better, or additional materials we’d love to see. In a MOOC, we’d have forums where I suppose we could crowd-source these questions, and even now if we really cared we could do some research of our own to see if they’re addressed anywhere. But there are at least two advantages to having a real live instructor: one would be our trust in the answers we got, and the other would be the efficiency of talking to someone who can filter the noise for us, rather than trying to create our own expertise on the fly. Here’s a third, actually: that real live instructor can help us reframe our questions too, which itself, in an unfamiliar field, is not easy (as anyone who has ever had students create discussion questions for class can attest), and in that back-and-forth too there is learning.

I do feel I am learning from my Great Course. I would be learning even more if I were doing more than watching it fairly passively, and I would be learning more still if I were actually taking the course in person, face to face. I don’t think there’s anyone who is claiming that MOOCs are as pedagogically effective (never mind as socially engaging) as actual classroom instruction. What’s odd is how much hype there is around them as if we haven’t already, for decades, had similar options. Our TOOC* lacks the online infrastructure, but otherwise, in its essentials, it’s about the same: you watch and listen, and then you decide how involved you want to be. That’s OK for us, because our only stake in this experience is personal, our only goal some extra enlightenment. It’s not OK if you imagine this activity as part of a deliberate process of intellectual and academic development.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with Hieronymous Bosch: tonight it’s Lecture 25: Netherlandish Art in the 16th Century.


*Technically it’s not entirely “open” since the DVDs aren’t free (but if you keep an eye out for sales, as we do, they aren’t expensive either) — but they could be borrowed from libraries, I expect.

10 thoughts on “Before Coursera, There Were the ‘Great Courses’

  1. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 20, 2013 / 1:25 pm

    A date with Hieronymous Bosch – you are so lucky. He is a charmer, and knows all of the best restaurants and piano bars.

    MOOCS are going to put The Teaching Company out of business long before they do any real damage to liberal arts education.

    Move up a notch and the critical vocabulary will tighten up. I do not believe that the art historians are any more impressionistic than literary critics.

    if we were so inclined

    The question I have, but am too polite to ask, whenever people write about their Coursera, etc. experience is something like “How is this different than reading books on the subject?” Art historians have written a lot of really good books. I cannot ask them questions, either, but I can follow my questions through other books. (My answer to every question is: more books).

    My concentration is limited – my time, too, but I think concentration or intellectual energy is the key here. The reason it takes me two months to read a volume ofModern Painters is the amount of Ruskin I can really concentrate on every day is about ten pages, twenty if I am especially alert. Then I have to move to something less demanding, and then down another step, then another, until I collapse.

    I would guess that most MOOC use is taking place fairly low down on the “concentration hierarchy.” More than watching The Big Bang Theory, but less than- less than lots of other things.


  2. Rohan Maitzen May 20, 2013 / 4:51 pm

    Tom, that Hieronymous guy was … trippy. Hard to believe The Garden of Earthly Delights isn’t about 300 years later than it is. I believe you about the vocabulary tightening up. But I’m sure, too, that the feeling of being told things that don’t quite stand up to reason is an experience familiar to readers of literary criticism as well. What’s winning, ultimately, is that you come to believe in them because you realize the critic is drawing not just on gut reactions (of the sort I mostly still have in art museums!) but on a reservoir of knowledge and also comparative experience. His favorite line is “I’m going to describe it to you” — which sounds a lot less substantial a plan that it really is, as seeing the art through his eyes is a big part of the point.

    Anyway, about MOOCs, I think the answer to “How different is this than reading books” would turn on the supporting apparatus for discussion and evaluation. It is possible to make this happen on your own as a reader: you could, oh, I dunno, start a book blog or something … But the MOOC providers package this all up — not, though, based at least on anecdotes, with enormous success. (One of the paintings in last night’s lecture was “The Blind Leading the Blind” — I’ll leave it to you to unpack the relevance in this context. 🙂 ). The other main difference, as I understand it, is that MOOCs are actually less flexible because you have to do them on a pre-set schedule. Oh, and if you are so inclined, you can take quizzes and write papers and so on. Also “read more books” is a difficult proposition to monetize, what with all these pesky libraries around.


  3. Teresa May 20, 2013 / 9:25 pm

    I just finished my first MOOC (on Gender and Comic Books), and I was talking to a friend about it last week and ended up describing it as something like The Teaching Company courses, only online and free, with a discussion option. I did learn from it, but the massiveness of it–including the extreme enthusiasm and unlimited time of some participants–made the discussions too overwhelming for me. But I liked having a bit of a schedule to follow and a community of other learners to chat with, when I was inclined. The professor of this course was pretty involved in the discussions, so we did get some help in filtering and reframing. The lectures were short, and she had live video interviews with experts during the course in which she drew on student questions. Aside from the unmanageable size, it was about as well-planned an experience as I can think of, but it wasn’t nearly as effective as a smaller, in-person course would be. Perhaps it would come close to the 500-student lecture courses, but without grades and with optional discussion groups.

    As Tom’s question on how it’s different from reading a book on the topic, I think Rohan is right that it’s mostly the discussion apparatus and the schedule, and the schedule is not such a great thing if the pacing isn’t right for you. For me, it’s just nice to take in information through a different medium sometimes. And I don’t expect MOOCs to be great for really deep learning. Introductory and survey courses or really nichey topics seem like the right use for them. And even then, I mostly see them as useful for personal learning and enrichment.


  4. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 20, 2013 / 11:41 pm

    “I’m going to describe it to you” – I have known several art historians. That is a huge part of their training. How to look, then how to describe.

    “the extreme enthusiasm and unlimited time of some participants” – Teresa, that is fascinating. I wonder if the particular subject attracted these people, or if it is a more general problem.

    If only the folks pumping up the MOOCs talked about them as great vehicles for adult education (and pre-adult – those math courses, very impressive) when we are well aware that limited time and energy require all sorts of compromises in depth and commitment, rather than eyeing them as (eventual, once the kinks are worked out) substitutes for paying, for-credit undergraduate classes.


  5. Stefanie May 21, 2013 / 12:54 pm

    I can attest the Great Course lectures are available at libraries. My sister went on a binge last summer and got a bunch from he local public library.

    I think Teresa and Tom are right about MOOCs being great for adult education–brushing up on a forgotten subject, learning something new, or delving into a topic one already enjoys–but for undergrad credit, I can’t see that they will be all that valuable. Still, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and in library news MOOCs seem to be everyone’s favorite subject at the moment.


  6. Rohan May 21, 2013 / 1:15 pm

    Anyone who wants a strong skeptical take on MOOCs should follow historian Jonathan Rees at ‘More or Less Bunk’ . The most disturbing thing about the MOOC craze is that you just know it’s being embraced not for the public good (though that’s often the surface rhetoric) but in the hopes of saving money down the road by putting students in front of screens, not faculty, but still charging them fees of some kind.


  7. Jeffry A. house May 21, 2013 / 5:39 pm

    Jonathan Rees correctly believes that MOOCS will replace lots of non-star professors. That is sad, in the same way that it was sad when mechanized looms replaced weavers. Or perhaps a better example would be the replacement of vaudeville by motion pictures? In the latter case, the ability to deliver a duplicate of a high-standard performance substantially reduced peoples ‘ interest in seeing non-star performers in person.

    From my corner of the world, I would never be able to pay the tuition demanded at most universities these days, so its hard for me to feel sorry that there are a lot of free courses on line, that I can learn a lot from, but not so much as if I could afford to be at Harvard.

    It would be nice to have a professor-friendly option to propose, but I haven’t heard of one.


  8. Rohan May 22, 2013 / 10:25 am

    Jeffry, I think comparisons of education to consumer and material goods are somewhat misleading, since they involve a different interplay of factors and affect society, also, in a rather different way. I don’t feel at all hostile to making educational materials available affordable for the benefit of those who would like to “learn a lot” from them (though the point of my post was that there have long been options for that kind of intellectual enhancement — and as others would rightly add, there have long been options for online education too). What we’re starting to see, though, are attempts to convince people that MOOCs are as good as the real thing, or that even if they aren’t we shouldn’t really care — this is not the same as discovering you can make equally good cloth using machines. Supplemental? Yes, sure. But substitutions? No — not, anyway, for teaching in fields that involve grappling with words and ideas.

    Also, I think there are a lot of things wrong with the assumption that Harvard is the be-all, end-all when it comes to educational quality, or that there are no significant losses from centralizing knowledge and thus dampening precisely the diversity and dialogue that lead to discovery and innovation. (A recent discussion at Historiann raised some important questions about the socio-political implications of MOOC madness.) You really don’t need to be at Harvard to get an outstanding education from really top-notch, even stellar (if not ‘star’) professors; the elitism of this aspect of the MOOC movement is kind of astonishing — though maybe it shouldn’t be.


  9. Jeffry A. House May 22, 2013 / 2:40 pm

    Thanks for your analysis! I read through the material at Historiann, and it struck me that people do understand, and will support, an educational experience which is small-group, intensive, and hands-on. A commenter there mentioned that no one is proposing to replace the football coach with a MOOC, because we understand that THAT learning cannot be done long-distance.

    It seems to me that the target group for MOOC replacement will be teachers of courses in which a live professor lectures to hundreds in a vast hall, with a protocol that prevents interruption because the lecture is a set-piece.

    Flipping the classroom and critiquing the received wisdom of the star MOOC lecturer, by professor and then students, could provide the basis for a fruitful use of MOOCS as part of a learning experience.


  10. Jeffry A. House June 19, 2013 / 9:20 am

    I’m posting this way late, but thought it might amuse.

    “As colleges begin using massive open online courses (MOOC) to reduce faculty costs, a Johns Hopkins University professor has announced plans for MOOA (massive open online administrations). Dr. Benjamin Ginsberg, author of The Fall of the Faculty, says that many colleges and universities face the same administrative issues every day. By having one experienced group of administrators make decisions for hundreds of campuses simultaneously, MOOA would help address these problems expeditiously and economically. Since MOOA would allow colleges to dispense with most of their own administrators, it would generate substantial cost savings in higher education”
    . – See more at:


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