Updated March 2022: The Great Courses Company is now also called Wonderium.
Over 25 years ago, Tom Rollins, a Harvard Law student was unprepared for an exam. He found a videotape series that would help him acquire the material efficiently. When he began to watch the video lecture series, he was surprised, impressed and inspired. The video lectures by Professor Irving Younger were engaging and powerful. An idea (and company) was born. Since then, The Teaching Company became The Great Courses Company and their repertoire of dynamic and powerful lecture series has grown to a huge catalog of offerings in a wide spectrum of subjects.
When Rollins created the company, his premise was simple (http://www.thegreatcourses.com/about-us/heritage):
- Find the top 1% of college professors in the world, selected entirely for their ability to teach.
- Use feedback from customers to help craft courses into formats uniquely designed for the lifelong learner.
Naturally, many homeschool (and afterschool) families have seen great value in incorporating some of the The Great Courses into their library of resources.
I was introduced to The Teaching Company 20 years ago by my grandfather who is the epitome of a life long learner. At that time, he was sharing some of his cassette tape lectures on American History and English Literature with me. Since then, I have become a big fan of The Great Courses Company and have acquired a not so small library of courses for our library. We use them in several ways and I wanted to share with you how we get them for the best price and how we get the most of out them for our situation.
First, it is critically important to note that these courses are mostly pitched at college students and adults. There are some newer courses which have been designed specifically to meet the needs of teens. Generally, however, please know that these courses do not pretend to be child friendly. Children are not their intended audience and so references to sex and adult activities may be included (in appropriate ways). However, with some supervision and previewing on my part, we have used many of these courses in our homeschool with great success.
I purchase these courses with two audiences in mind: myself and my children (at time of writing this they are aged 5, 6 & 8 and we have been using them for 2 years). Some courses are just for me (at this time) and so I am not particularly concerned about how mature they might be or whether or not my children will find them to be “boring”. These courses I incorporate into my personal schole.
Some courses I purchase with the intention of sharing with my children in our morning symposium or to watch as a family at night. This has been a lot of fun and we have learned tons. My almost 9 year old loves all things engineering and so the course on Greek and Roman Technology has been great for us as well as Everyday Engineering.
Let’s be honest, these courses are not cheap. They can be gotten for huge discounts but even then they will gobble up a big part of a homeschool budget. Here are some ideas on how to purchase them as economically as possible:
Format. When looking at a course, note whether or not it offered in audio as well as video. With some exceptions, courses that are offered as audio are not substantially better as video and therefore can be acquired at a savings if purchased in audio format. Interestingly, most of the audio courses can be purchased a radical discount if you are an Audible member. Audible members can purchase most of the Great Courses audio library for 1 credit per course. (Check out our post on Audible Membership here.) You will lose out on some things – photos and seeing the professor. However, if it is being offered in audio, then The Great Courses company is confident that the course is not diminished by not being seen. Note: Audible **does** offer the downloadable PDF course guide automatically in your online Audible library for those courses which have one.
Here is an example: Professor J. Rufus Fears’s (one of my favorites) Life Lessons from the Great Books. To purchase his course new from The Great Courses Company it would cost $70-85 on sale (plus shipping if applicable).
The very same course can be purchased from Audible. $41.95 from non-members, $29.36 for members or even better yet – 1 credit for members with any credits. (And since I am on the 24 credits all at once plan, that is less than $10 per credit for me.)
Audible has over 350 Great Courses Company courses available in this way. In fact, my grandfather asked me if I wanted to borrow his old cassette tape lectures. To listen to them I would have to purchase a tape to MP3 converter. On a whim, I saw that Audible carried all of the courses in question and decided that at $10 a course it was worth my time to just put those on my wishlist for someday. Additionally, Audible often puts Great Courses Company courses on daily deal or buy one get one 50% off or any other number of great promotions.
What about math and science courses? Those tend to be visually intensive. Yes. Those I always purchase from The Great Courses Company site. I want to be able to see those. Most of the video courses today are streaming enabled. Most, not all. The question then becomes, why would I pay for a dvd and the shipping when those two things can add $20-40 to the cost of the course?
In most cases, I am comfortable with just purchasing it in download format (streaming is automatically included in any video course – download or dvd). The course book is sent via PDF and is perfectly accessible for my uses. In some cases, however, the course is enhanced by a powerful workbook.
On Black Friday/Cyber Monday, the Great Courses Company tends to have incredible sales. Some courses were 90% off, free shipping and an additional $20 off a total order. I confess to having stocked up on a number of good deals on Cyber Monday 2014.
I purchased Mathematics from the Visual World in DVD because streaming was not available. (Rare). As you can see, the “guidebook” that accompanied it is much smaller and thinner than the workbooks that accompanied the 3 High School math courses.
Another great opportunity to save money is to purchase courses in sets. Remember that Greek and Roman Technology course I mentioned? It is very cool. Dr. Ressler is a professor at West Point and is a military engineer and has 3 courses with The Great Courses. Dr. Ressler uses K’Nex and Thomas the Tank Engine trains to show weight distribution on “stiffening trusses” in bridges like Brooklyn Bridge (Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures, lecture 1). We purchased these two courses together (only finding out afterwards that the first 9 lectures of the structures course is free on Netflix) on Cyber Monday for less than $80. My then 7 1/2 year old and I learn a lot about engineering and physics together as we go through these courses – not to mention history! And Dr. Ressler is FAMILY FRIENDLY. No blush worthy moments in any lecture that I have seen of his three courses. Did I mention that some of these courses are free through Netflix? Oh yes I did. Netflix and The Great Courses Company have a limited relationship at time of writing this post. If you have Netflix keep checking their inventory and if you like them, please be sure to rate them well. Netflix is trying to determine how valuable this partnership would be to Netflix customers. If they get the favorable results that they want, more courses may become available.
Finally, The Great Courses Company launched a streaming service (like Netflix) in the fall. I was part of the beta test and loved having access to about 80% of their courses. The price point was cost prohibitive at launch and so I did not participate. Ultimately, they have come out with a more affordable option but it is still a poor fit for me. For another family, it might be ideal or a great way to try their courses on for size over a winter season or something like that. I have found that we desire to have the library for future reference.
As my family completes courses, I will review more of them.
Links to courses we have reviewed: