Before Coursera, There Were the ‘Great Courses’


Have 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.