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Monday, September 07, 2015

Before YouTube and online classes, there were the Great Courses

Follow on Twitter as @nevinmartell
"Recruiting "rock star" professors and other secrets behind the popular lecture series." according to Nevin Martell, freelance writer; author of several books. 

Georgetown University neuroscientist James Giordano tapes a sample lecture at the Chantilly, Va., studios of the Teaching Company, which produces the Great Courses lecture series. 
Photo: Washington Post

1. Scourthe 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...

Will Schmidt is the head scout for the Great Courses. 
Photo: Washington Post

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.