I bought an Ipad a couple of months ago, and for a while considered it a very cool gadget. We watched movies on Netflix. I downloaded some games. It’s become my portable stereo. I can check e-mail in the middle of the night without getting out of my bed. Very nice.
And then last week I downloaded the Itunes University app. This time, I didn’t say “hey, cool.” I didn’t say anything, because I was speechless. Dozens of colleges are sharing the full lectures — often on video, sometimes just audio — of hundreds, perhaps thousands of different courses, across nearly every subject you can think of. Stanford, Duke, Yale, MIT, Harvard. You can just pop in, search the catalog and start taking whatever class catches your fancy.
I have not been unaware that education, like so many other industries, is being upended by the Internet. My family swears by Khan Academy, which is proving pivotal in teaching algebra to Lea. I was even aware that many universities are making their courses available online — you don’t need Itunes to avail yourself of free coursework from Yale, or MIT. But Itunes compiles it all together into a neat little package. It’s a one and a half pound university that will teach you anything you have a mind to learn.
College is, let’s face it, wasted on most college students. It was certainly wasted on me. I pushed myself not one half-inch, managing to get through four years at SUNY-Albany without looking at a single math problem. (I wasn’t going to need math, you see.) I displayed not one whit of true intellectual curiousity, sticking instead to those classes I deemed thoroughly up my alley, dropping several when they betrayed me by becoming challenging. I was given four full years to learn things. That’s a long damn time. I can’t say I have a lot to show for it.
Well. A second chance is suddenly as easy as pushing a few buttons, and it is now my determination to always have one Itunes course or another in rotation. Some will prove not to be my cup of tea, and I’ll quit after a couple of lectures. Some will no doubt be fascinating but over my head. Some might be exactly what I’m looking for. We’ll see.
After a full week of dithering — I was overwhelmed by my choices — I finally settled on my first course: Yale’s Introduction to the American Revolution, taught by Joanne Freeman. I’ve watched three classes so far, and I am already set to declare this course a home run. Dr. Freeman is an accessible, engaging lecturer, tackling her subject with the enthusiasm of a geeky fangirl. (She often seems on the verge of giggling, and sometimes does.) And it took less than five minutes into the first class before she cracked my mind open like an egg, as she informed me of what is now glaringly obvious: That the “American Revolution” and the war in the 1770s were two separate and tangential things. The real revolution occured without a shot fired: It was the transformation of the mindset of the colonists, over a gradual (and then, toward the end, not so gradual) 150+ years, if you start counting at the establishment of Jamestown.
Dr. Freeman opens up the hood of the American Revolution and starts dismantling it before your eyes, explaining how the day-to-day lives of the colonists became so vastly different from the lives of those back in England that a rift now seems inevitable, and not simply because Britain passed a lot of unpopular acts. If it hadn’t been the Stamp Act or the Tea Act, it almost certainly would have been something else.
Now, in the first lecture, she spends a good ten minutes on all the reading her real-life students had to do, and I can tell you right now I am unlikely to do much of that. (ITunes makes it real easy, though — all the materials are there to be purchased at the touch of a button.) The time I have to devote to this is limited, and in the everyday chaos of my house, even getting through a single 40-minute lecture can take as long as two hours. But I do plan to stick to the lectures, a couple each week… and surely, at least, I’ll find the time to read “Common Sense” for (I’m embarrassed to say) the first time in my life. Because suddenly I am genuinely interested, in a way I never would have been when I was 19.
And I am already peeking back at the course list to see what might catch my eye next. Maybe statistics, or maybe a basic science course. It’s an exciting time.