Lifelong Learning with The Great Courses

atkins-bookshelf-education“Long ago, when I was in law school, one of my professors stopped writing on the blackboard in the middle of a lecture and turned to make what seemed, at the time, a completely irrelevant point. He said, ‘Fifteen years from now, after you have mastered your craft, you will yearn to return to the things that most fascinated you when you were undergraduates.’”
Tom Rollins, Founder of The Teaching Company

Since 1990, The Teaching Company, has been educating individuals with a passion for lifelong learning, offering more than 400 university-level courses. The Teaching Company charted its own course (pun intended) long before the maturation of the internet and the proliferation of podcast lectures, streaming lessons (like iTunes University and Kahn Academy), and free online universities (like Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity). Tom Rollins, a Harvard Law School graduate and the former Chief Counsel of the US Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, founded the company inspired by a professor’s insightful nonsequitur during a lecture coupled with his own experience in law school where videotapes helped him master the mind-numbing federal rules of evidence.

When asked, “what were your favorite courses in college?” most people will recall classes taught by their favorite professors. The issue is that English, for example, is not more inherently fascinating than History — it has to do with how the classes were taught. Rollins was keenly aware of the distinction between a memorable and a forgettable teacher. Indeed, the hallmark of a great teacher is one who not only possesses mastery of the subject matter but understands that it is important to engage with students to make a class interesting, entertaining, enjoyable and inspiring. Far too many college courses languish because they are unnecessarily the domain of uninspired, pompous academics overly enamored with their own credentials. Rollins sought to remove those barriers from college-level courses in order to make higher learning accessible and enjoyable. Say goodbye to registration lines, heavy and expensive books, uncomfortable classroom desks, and having to write papers and take tests. Education doesn’t get better than this.

While the Teaching Company delivers passionate, charismatic teachers to the virtual classroom, those consumers that are yearning for knowledge add their life experience and wisdom to the class, leading to a profound understanding and appreciation of the courses. This formula for truly “higher” learning has been a winning formula: within ten years of starting the Teaching Company, sales grew to $20 million per year. By 2011 sales topped $110 million per year, having sold nearly 10 million courses. The New York Times has hailed the Teaching Company as “a force in continuing education” and the Wall Street Journal describes the company as “the colossus of its field.” Although Rollins sold a majority stake of the company to Brentwood Associates in 2006 (and the name of the company was changed to The Great Courses), his contribution to education has been recognized accordingly. In November of 2012, Rollins was a recipient of the Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education.

To paraphrase the famous StarKist commercial featuring its famous mascot Charlie the Tuna (Sorry, Charlie — only good tasting tuna get to be StarKist): not every professor gets be a Great Courses professor. The company identifies the top 1% of the 500,000 U.S. college professors.The company seeks out professors who are top experts in their field, who have won teaching awards (bestowed by students), and have a very engaging and entertaining teaching style. Customers then help narrow down the selection through their feedback; in the end, only 1 out of 5,000 professors make it into The Great Courses virtual university. Many professors are from ivy-league schools and have published several books — and almost all have a very devoted following among Great Courses students. And unlike a university that foists its curriculum upon the student, customers get to provide feedback about the courses they are interested in. Courses are developed to cover literature, science, philosophy, history, religion, business, religion, mathematics, fine arts, and music delivered in digestible 30-minute lectures. Each course is reasonably priced (and when you consider the cost of a typical 4-year university, the price is a real steal) and is available on CD, DVD, and as a download for mobile devices to bring the classroom directly to you.

Let the learning begin.

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