Sunday, May 22, 2016

4/100: On The Great Courses

I have an aversion to the word Great! This is one of the words in English language, employed to describe a little island, which has taken an altogether new level of superficiality in the usual American habit of splashing it onto anything: For example, "the Great Country of North Korea" - ok, except that!

I was, therefore, naturally suspicious when I come across The Great Courses, the audio/video learning content aimed at Lifelong Learning (another meaningless expression, admittedly, except that it has a specific meaning in the European Union). I came across these through the regular advertisements in The New Yorker and The London Review of Books, and also, in a Bill Gates interview, where he mentioned that he uses The Great Courses to learn about different subjects. Gates' point was interesting: He was arguing that more than the MOOCs, The Great Courses, high quality recorded videos on a rage of subjects, designed for self-study, has great potential to change Education. Indeed, Gates seems to have put his money on this since then, as this story in The New York Times reports.

Bill Gates' views on education is not everyone's cup of tea. Surely, his Common Core idea has many opponents. Besides, he seems to focus on 'Content' more than the process of education, which is perhaps quite normal from his vantage point, a highly intelligent self-educated geek billionaire who made money out of selling software! Usually, I hang out with the crowd who would say, Content does not matter: As content is costly to produce and to refresh, it does not therefore fit the quest for efficiency some investors in For-Profit Education or EdTech are focused on. In a paradox worth noting, despite the talk, most big EdTech or Education deals are done in content - think of Linkedin buying - and the excitement about MOOCs were all about content or elements related to that (universities involved, courses offered etc).

I have now become a convert to The Great Courses though. I am now working through a course on The American History and have already finished a couple: One on the Cultural History of Japan and another on Masters of War, the great strategic thinkers in History. These courses, though I usually bought them on special offers in the magazines I mentioned, are not cheap: The American History course retails at $200! I bought the DVD versions using the free postage offering, but mostly used the Free Video Streaming offered alongside. These courses are, expectedly, courses - scholarly material delivered by learnt men - and not the usual TV programmes that I was expecting initially. They use complex concepts and ideas, delve into a level of detail that should be expected in a college course and usually presented by people with real credentials (I am eyeing now a course on Existentialism taught by the philosopher late Robert Solomon, an authority on the subject, for example). 

Here is my point why I think these courses make a difference in my personal context. I am passionate about Liberal Education, and believe, particularly in the context of India, that too much focus on Technical Education is now leading the country to a crisis, as the process-based jobs get increasingly automated. But while I argue passionately about humanities and social sciences and have argued that the Government should stop giving university licenses to single discipline Engineering schools (many technical schools try to get 'university status' to start granting their degrees) and that Undergraduate Business courses should be based on a Liberal Education structure, I have found that these arguments have few takers in India (though an argument being unpopular does not mean it is wrong: A lot of people in India believe that they should not bother about environment as catching up on development should come first). The Great Courses does two things for me: One, it allows me to work on my own knowledge and understanding, a critical requirement for my long term objective to set up a Liberal Learning institution in India. Two, it shows me a way how good Liberal Learning can be made available to all classrooms: I can see the magic in Gates' method.

Therefore, The Great Courses - really great stuff, for once! It is something I shall continue buying and studying through, but this also gives me all sorts of new ideas for things that can be done in India. I have started reaching out to people I know and encouraged them to buy and start doing a course of their own choice. This has also given me an impetus for looking at the whole idea of liberal learning from a new perspective, and connecting my other ideas, an education based on practise and connection with real life, and usage of human-centred technologies in Education (rather than those to replace people), I feel somewhat close to a model that I should pursue. Someday!

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