The Hottest Course on iTunes (and the Future of Digital Education)

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.

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Comments (14)
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  • Luis says:

    This is probably due to the publicity this course got in Wired Magazine; this past issue was my first and I got it for free two. It’s an awesome magazine.

  • Atfor Nohcud says:

    Finally someone has come up with this good idea.
    Why not use technology.
    It all depends not if it is live or “taped” but the level of support.
    Podcasting with mp3s is the cassette tape format of our time.

  • Joe Tojek says:

    Can we finally come up with an economic model for education that is free for participants?

    All of this foot dragging is counter productive. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to figure this out.

    Education is the premiere project of our time. We cannot fail.

    Anyone working on this? Or too busy trying to figure out how to lock or un-lock proprietary content?

  • Carol A says:

    Perhaps the universities need to think of podcasting differently: giving away lectures for free isn’t downgrading a university course, it is rather like a movie preview. A taste of what the full course offers generates real interest, but getting exams marked and the actual degree certificate means students would have to sign up and pay fees.
    I am surprised that some of the big corporations haven’t “sponsored” some lectures? A wonderful way of hitting a target audience for books, computers or specialised job recruitment.
    I have been listening to the 12 Byzantine Rulers series for the past few weeks, no wonder it is popular! Has Mr Brownworth thought of producing a book? I’d certainly buy it.

  • Ollie Jones says:

    Many US public libraries have a good stock of Teaching Company courses on CD. You can certainly learn a lot without paying by borrowing them.

  • Will says:

    I’ve been listening to Mr. Brownworth’s excellent series, and length of lectures (and the long waits between lectures) are a drawback. But, the quality of the lectures themselves is excellent, easily comparable to TTC.

    I would also be willing to hear an ad or two thrown in if it will help Mr. Brownworth produce these lectures.

  • Anders says:

    The question of how to get a revenue stream from a podcast has not yet been clearly answered. The Internet generation is used to highly targeted Google ads, so in my opinion, the random 30 second “spot” ad before a podcast is not a long-term workable format. One of the ways to think about it is to consider the podcast the ad itself. You get people interested in your content and then you sell a more substantial product to those you attract. In terms of this podcast, a book is a good example.

    In my opinion, I think the legitimate edu-podcast courses need to be unified under an umbrella. Once they do that, they will pose a significant threat to business models like that of The Teaching Company. Before that happens though, you pay the Teaching Company $129 because you know you are going to get a quality product. There is no clearly labeled free option yet.

  • Nico says:


    we have just launched (today) a digg like site for academic/ educational resources.

    I hope that you will post some of your academic or educational news there!

    Nico Baird

  • Adri says:

    I found it a bit dissapointing that Lars Brownworth fails to mention he pulls a significant amount of material word by word from John Julius Norwich’s three volume Byzantium work.

    Despite this bibliographical omission, however, it is very well read and includes a lot of additional information and provides a splendid introduction to the Middle Ages’ most crucial civilisation.

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  • ivanovich Katrina says:

    Hello there. I just wanted to mention that i LOVE that name, what was it again? ..ON-DOORS

  • desnudas says:

    any changes coming ?

  • Kirsten says:

    Commode salle de cinéma à deux pas du centre proposant des films à gros budget

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