What's the most popular podcast in the Higher Education section of iTunes? Ahead of all the podcasts from Princeton, and all of those from Yale, and ahead of the Understanding Computers course from Harvard, and even the psychology course from UC Berkeley, is an unexpected podcast called Twelve Byzantine Rulers: The History of the Byzantine Empire. The course, which focuses on the Greek-speaking Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, is taught by Lars Brownworth, who teaches high school at The Stony Brook School on Long Island, New York. And it gets rave reviews. "I'm disappointed because I don't think I'll ever find a podcast that I enjoy as much as this one." "This podcast has quickly become a hit with me and all of my friends, even those who don't like history so much." You get the gist.
The success of this course makes us think that companies that sell digital lectures for a fee might not be long for this world. Take The Teaching Company for example. They're in the business of selling polished, lecture-based courses, which can often be very well done. And, yes, they offer too a course on the Byzantine Empire that retails in audio download form for $129. So what will the savvy consumer do? Download Brownworth's course for free? Or pay $129? This is not a knock on what The Teaching Company is doing. I like their product and can appreciate their need to sell products to recoup their costs. But you can't compete with free. With so many university courses now taping their courses and allowing people to download them to the ubiquitous iPod (see our full list of university podcasts), you have to wonder whether The Teaching Company is just another once viable business model that is being steadily commoditzed by the Internet.