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Before YouTube and online classes, there were the Great Courses

🕐 14 min read

Before YouTube and online classes, there were the Great Courses cassettes that delivered college-level lecture series to the nearest tape deck. The Teaching Company, the Virginia firm that makes them, has since moved on to MP3 files and smartphone apps. But the courses still enjoy a loyal following. (Billionaire Bill Gates said his favorite series is “Big History.”) Here is a look at what goes into the making of a Great Course.

1. Scour the world for talent

“A piano has 88 keys, but at any one time, I can only hold down 10,” James Giordano explains as he mimics playing a Steinway baby grand, his hands moving in the air above his plate.

He’s sitting at a center table amid the lunchtime bustle of Georgetown’s Cafe Milano, an upscale Italian institution favored by the moneyed neighborhood residents. Dressed in designer jeans and a sharp dark blazer with a white shirt open at the top, the 55-year-old sports a shaved head and a closely cropped, graying goatee framing an impressively white set of teeth. He looks more like a businessman than a renowned neuroscientist and neuroethicist.

“I’m playing a little bit more than a tenth of that piano, yet I can make that puppy sing,” he continues, his fingers dancing up and down the imaginary keyboard. “If I’m Jerry Lee Lewis, I’m hammering that bad boy. It’s about the speed. It’s about the coordination. The same is true in the brain. If I used all the brain at every second, it would be noise. You would make no sense of it.”

The Georgetown University professor is debunking a popular urban myth: that if people could just gain access to more of their brains, they would be infinitely smarter. Unfortunately, one of Hollywood’s timeworn tropes — most recently explored in “Lucy” and “Limitless” — is nothing more than a screenwriter’s fever dream.

Listening raptly across the table is Will Schmidt. With youthful features, a blue blazer and khaki slacks, the preppy 36-year-old is director of professor recruiting for the Teaching Company. It is best known for the Great Courses, long-form audio and video lecture series on topics from philosophy and photography to Buddhism and the barbarian empires of the Steppes. The programs are designed to give lifelong learners a continuing education without the classroom time, homework assignments or credits earned. Self-described fans include Bill Gates and George Lucas, who delivered taped opening remarks to a Great Courses conference in Charlottesville in June. (The first choice, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a Great Courses professor himself, wasn’t available.)

Since its inception in 1990, the Teaching Company has created more than 500 courses, which company officials report have sold 14 million copies. Though the firm is privately owned and doesn’t make earnings public, it claims to have racked up sales of $100 million last year.

What sustains the company in a crowded marketplace that includes amateur podcasts and competitors such as is a constant stream of new talent. That is where Schmidt comes in. Think of him as an A&R guy for nerds. He and his colleagues refer to their talent as “rock stars,” though the official term is professors.

Today he’s sizing up Giordano for a course on neuroethics, the study of the ethical, legal and social issues surrounding neuroscience in research and its applications in medicine, national security and beyond. So far, Giordano seems to be acing the audition. The professor is clearly used to working a room, talking with abundant energy and gesticulating to punctuate points.

For Great Courses, a professor’s persona and ability to engage a virtual audience is as important as their academic credentials. To find the right mix of brains and bravado, Schmidt devours TED Talks, online lectures and podcasts. “The best source, though I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this on tape, is,” he says.

Customers also suggest potential professors. “If someone says, ‘I’ve been a lifelong customer and I’ve purchased 50 of your courses and I think this guy would be great,’ I’m going to take that person seriously,” Schmidt says. “Now that person might teach erotic medieval poetry, which we could never use, but I’ll still take a look.”

He isn’t sold on anyone until he has laid eyes on the lecturer in person. Schmidt travels the country several times a month to audit classes and attend academic conferences, such as MathFest, the annual summer meeting of the Mathematical Association of America with panels titled “Innovative Approaches in the Calculus Sequence” and “Heavenly Mathematics: The Forgotten Art of Spherical Trigonometry.”

“I had no idea what was going on,” Schmidt says. “It’s the only place where I’ve felt like the stupidest but most attractive person in the room.”

2. Know your audience

Schmidt and his colleague, Ryan Davis, know what kind of talent to seek out because they know exactly who’s buying the lecture series. The courses are advertised in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and the New York Times Book Review. According to in-house research, more than half of today’s Great Courses customers hold advanced degrees, the average customer is older than 50 and nearly half make more than $100,000 annually.

They must, to afford the investment. Great Courses range from $20 for a short audio download to more than $500 for a 48-lecture DVD set on an introduction to Western visual art. This fall, the company is rolling out an online subscription service that will offer hundreds of full courses and thousands of stand-alone lectures for a monthly fee of $49.95.

To justify the expense, when some competitors offer college-level lectures for free, the Great Courses producers leave nothing to chance. Whereas decades earlier, courses were built around instructors, the company now relies on marketing data to identify subjects customers are clamoring for.

The research has revealed that customers disdain anything too dry and incomprehensible, as well as anything too dumbed down. So the company has staked out a niche somewhere between the academia-generated offerings of massive open online courses (or MOOCs), such as Coursera and edX, and basic-cable edutainment such as “How William Shatner Changed the World.”

3. Find deep pockets

Great Courses, which turns 25 this year, is the brainchild of former lawyer Tom Rollins. As the story has it, he was at law school, looking down the barrel of a final exam on the federal rules of evidence that he wasn’t prepared for. To cram he watched 10 hours of videotaped lectures by acclaimed legal professor Irving Younger. Not only did he find the videos entrancing, he received an A.

After serving as the chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Rollins drew up a business plan based on the idea that he would record college-level lectures by what he dubbed SuperStar Teachers and direct-market them on cassette and VHS tapes to create a “home university” for lifelong learners. He rented a car and drove up and down the East Coast from Georgetown University to Colby College recruiting professors who had a reputation for delivering the goods as speakers.

One professor he signed up was Thomas Childers at the University of Pennsylvania, who would go on to teach a number of history courses. Childers later told Rollins he had only two thoughts: “Great idea. Get all the money upfront.”

Rollins figured he would need about $1.7 million to kick-start his company, so he began raising funds. “If there’s one thing I never want to do again it’s fly around the country, sometimes the Bahamas, to talk rich people out of $100,000 a pop,” he says.

After arranging the capital and moving the company’s headquarters from above his garage to an “instant office” in Arlington, Va., he set about recording lectures covering ancient Greek civilization, psychology, Shakespeare and political philosophy in front of a live audience in a basement auditorium of Georgetown Medical Center. Some of those early productions were fraught with unforeseen drama. One professor took one look at the 250-strong crowd, ran back into the hallway and vomited. “Then he came back and gave a pretty good speech,” Rollins says.

The company grew, eventually moved to Chantilly, Virginia, and now employs 250 people. Rollins sold the firm in 2006 to the private equity investment firm Brentwood Associates, whose portfolio includes Zoë’s Kitchen, Paper Source and Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar.

Says Brentwood co-founder William Barnum: “We look for companies that have great customer loyalty, that are usually owned by the founder, and have some unbelievably cool product and have a great customer following, but have run out of ideas.”

4. Be a little less square

The new owners ditched cassettes and upgraded the recording studios and post-production facilities. “We had to,” says chief brand officer Ed Leon. “Consumers got savvier. The expectations of somebody watching something on their personal screens or their television screens has become elevated.”

Brentwood Associates also encouraged Great Courses executives to expand offerings. “We’re doing academic approaches to slightly less long-haired subjects, as opposed to the Restoration [in 17th-century England] or the three years after the French Revolution,” says Barnum. “Now it’s bigger topics, like cooking and photography, but with a very academic approach.”

Great Courses is also starting to compete with Rosetta Stone by introducing more language-instruction courses in the next three years. “It’s a testament to our customers that the first language we rolled out was Latin” two years ago, says Schmidt. “Now we’re going to do languages that people actually speak, like Spanish, French and Italian.”

The company recognizes that loyal customers may grumble at this departure from longtime core favorites, such as philosophy, literature and history, and are treading carefully. “We don’t want to annoy the base,” says Andreas Burgstaller, senior creative director for marketing.

“We sound like a political party,” Burgstaller says. “We’re trying to encompass the edges while keeping the middle happy.”

5. Test everything — Then test some more

Kevin Manzel, director of innovation,likes to brag that the company produces “only hits.”

The secret?

“We test, test, test everything,” he says, “to mitigate the risk.”

Every aspect of the Great Courses — from which lecture series are produced to the design of the catalogues, apps and Web sites — is rigorously surveyed with customers. No incentives are offered for those who participate. “Our customers get that they are co-contributors to the content, and they take their role very seriously,” Manzel says. “We compete for people’s leisure time. It’s what they could be doing in otherwise unproductive time, like watching TV or reading a book.”

Before the company began producing photography and cooking courses, it polled its customers and determined that National Geographic and Culinary Institute of America were the gold standard for those specialties. Then customers were asked whether collaborating with those institutions would tarnish the prestige of the Great Courses.

Though some customers were split, the data ultimately gave the firm the confidence to proceed. “Fundamentals of Photography” and “The Everyday Gourmet: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking” are two of Great Courses’ biggest hits.

The company routinely abandons topic ideas, such as poker, or rejects potential partnerships after it floats the idea with customers and it doesn’t go over well. “They told us, ‘If you make a course with partner X it will decrease my perception of you,’ ” Manzel says. “So that was it. The Mediocre Courses doesn’t roll off the tongue.”

6. Add polish

After being vetted, a prospective professor writes an overview of her Great Course. Customers are polled on the idea. If it hits the threshold, a sample lecture is tested.

That’s what has brought Eric Snodgrass to the Great Courses television studios this afternoon. The director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois and consultant on climate forecasting is here to record a demo lecture on extreme weather.

“Tropical cyclones are one of the most powerful expressions of severe weather on Earth,” he tells the camera.

In the control room, Schmidt and Davis watch on a giant flat-screen monitor and follow the script on computers to see if it matches what Snodgrass is reading from the teleprompter.

Snodgrass nails the lecture on his first take. He does not have the bad habits and ticks that plague less-seasoned professors. Some sway while they talk. Others wander the set because they feel the need to fill the room. “It’s tough when you get someone who is incredibly passionate about what they do, but they’re just not a natural speaker,” says senior producer Alisha Reay. “The toughest affectation is people who want to shout to emphasize everything. It’s like they’re talking in all caps.”

Schmidt finds that the most difficult part for professors is exuding warmth. “It’s so hard to smile,” he says. “It’s such an artificial environment that the natural expression is a grimace.”

After some consultation with Schmidt, Snodgrass re-records a few lines to cover up minor flubs, then he’s finished.

“I thought it went well,” he says.

This lecture will be sent to customers who will rate whether the content and the professor are engaging, educational and intellectually rigorous while still being comprehensible to someone not versed in the subject. Only about half of the potential professors make it through this stage.

Schmidt calls it “professor Darwinism.”

7. Bring in some models

One-camera shots of a professor at a lectern don’t cut it these days. So Great Courses videos now feature custom-built physical or virtual sets and are packed with graphics and footage shot on location.

Stephen Ressler, a professor emeritus of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., builds his own models for his engineering courses.

He has superstar status around the Chantilly office. His first Great Course, “Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures,” is the company’s highest-rated product.

One afternoon, Ressler is standing in the studio with a replica of the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, recording his third course, “Everyday Engineering,” about the underlying scientific principles of technologies people use all the time that they may not be aware of.

He fills the miniature reservoir with water, observes it for a second, then addresses the camera: “It leaks a bit, but structurally, it works fine because both the arch and the load are oriented horizontally,” he says.

For this course alone, Ressler has handmade 50 models, which he’ll use in 150 or so demonstrations, and he has developed 50 to 60 computer models. It took seven weeks working 18-hour days to make them all. He has also been building an addition on his house partly to accommodate the models he plans to build if he gets to do more Great Courses.

8. Cross your fingers

James Giordano’s lecture on predictive neurotechnology — “the ability to utilize neuroimaging to predict who may be aggressive, violent and/or a criminal” — went through three edits. After fine-tuning the script, Giordano recorded an audio lecture for customers to review. Results should be back in October, determining whether he gets a contract.

If he does get the green light, Schmidt estimates Giordano would earn a $14,000 advance for a 24-lecture course or $21,000 for 36 lectures, though the company would not officially comment on how much it pays. “Most academics are fine with that kind of money because it’s more than they make doing other stuff,” says Schmidt, who notes that professors also earn royalties.”If they’re a best-selling author, though, I might have to have my CEO talk to them.”

For Edward T. O’Donnell, an associate history professor at the College of the Holy Crossin Worcester, Mass., a gig with the Teaching Company “offered the prospect of paying some bills.”

So far, he has recorded two Great Courses, “Turning Points in American History” and “America in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.””It’s made a big difference financially,” he says. “With three kids in college, [the approximately] $22,000 in royalties almost takes care of one of my kids for a full year.”

For Giordano, landing his own lecture series would offer more rewards than just money. After the recording session, he reveals that he has been a serious fan of Great Courses for years.

“This is like the kid who gets to play on his favorite baseball team,” he says. “So I’m crossing as many things as are crossable — toes, fingers, legs.”

– – –

Martell is author of several books, including “Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming With Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations.”

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