The Best iTunes U Courses and Why Teacher Quality Matters for Adults Too

In the endless debate over how to improve American schools, you often hear people bring up the issue of teacher quality. A good teacher can apparently give kids 1.5 years of learning in a school year, while a bad teacher can give as little as half a year. This is a profound effect, and people who know stuff about elementary education (i.e. not me) are working on ways to replace America’s crappy teachers with better ones.

I’m reminded of this all the time because over the last few years I’ve become totally obsessed with iTunes U (and, more recently, Coursera), and I listen to course lectures whenever I ride my bike, take a walk, wait in a line, use public transport, fly on an airplane or generally live my life. Courses are the best, they kill time just like a book, but leave your hands and eyes free to keep you from bumping into stuff. 

When I first started checking out these courses, I thought they would be a way to dive into topics I was already interested in. International development, European history, Seattle trivia. The more I listened, though, the more I realized that the subject matter was almost irrelevant to whether or not I enjoyed the course. The only thing that mattered, I eventually realized, was how good the lecturer was.

Topic after topic, I found my interest extinguished by bad lecturers. Meandering speeches, no notes, unclear structure, too many asides. My attention waned, then disappeared. After awhile I started to question if I was even into this shit. Am I only interested in European history because I had a good teacher at it in high school and I’ve been coasting on that ever since?

So then I started looking for courses with good teachers, subject matter be damned. One of the best ones I found is David Blight’s Civil War course. I know this is American Heresy, but the Civil War was never a topic I was particularly fascinated by. I’m not from a part of the country where its legacy is super-proximate; none of my family members were involved; the geography, demography, economics, they’re all a long time ago and far far away. Before Blight’s course, I thought of it like the Napoleonic Wars: Macro important, but micro-boring.

But it turns out I was totally wrong! Blight is such a fucking groupie for everyone, right and wrong, slave and white, victor and defeated, he tells you about each person and episode and argument like he’s just learned them. Every lecture has this ‘you’ll never guess what I found out today!’ tone, it’s infectious. I even ended up crying in one of them, about freed slaves; I was biking and I had to pull into the bus lane for a second til he was done.

I found other scorchingly good podcasts on game theory, economic history, the rise and fall of the second reich (not even the famous reich! That’s how good these lectures are!), even fucking stock valuationyou can barely stay awake to finish the name. They’re all, despite their diverse subject matter and dubious usefulness for everyday life, totally engrossing.

This is why I’m so dogmatically pro when it comes to technology and education. Everything is interesting if it’s presented the right way. If I had access to these-type lectures when I was in actual school, maybe I wouldn’t have gone through my 20s thinking that the Civil War was boring, that game theory was only for math geniuses, that the second reich … well, I probably would have known that there was a second reich.

I’m not making a political point. I have no idea how education is going to change in the next 5 years, much less 50. I just know that no matter how it does, I will be ready, somewhere, crying in a bus lane.


My Totally Subjective List of The Best iTunes U Courses Ever


Also: I’m kind of between courses at the moment, so if you know a good one, let me know in the comments!


April 8, 2014 · 1:09 pm

13 responses to “The Best iTunes U Courses and Why Teacher Quality Matters for Adults Too

  1. I have yet to venture over to iTunesU. I have used some of Khan Academy lectures for revision with my students, but Khan isn’t what you would call exciting.

    I loved the comment “Am I only interested in European history because I had a good teacher at it in high school and I’ve been coasting on that ever since?” I think there is some truth in that.

    I teach history because my teachers inspired me to love history. I had excellent professors at UW and SPU. I hope I’m half as good as they were.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations! I’ll definitely check them out.
    I agree that the right teacher makes all the difference. I’ve recently returned to school and have found myself skipping lectures and watching my own on Coursera, YouTube, etc. because they are way more engaging.

  3. From having a recent conversation with a friend about his children’s education I believe that you’ve hit onto something. Today’s children are not inclined to listen to a teacher drone on about some subject. Technology allows a student to progress or dive as deep as he wants to go. It changed the want business works so why shouldn’t it change the way we teach.

  4. I’m always on the look out for some good audio to tune into while I run. Hadn’t heard of iTunesU but am looking forward to trying it out. Thank you for the recommendation.

  5. Thanks very much for this list! I didn’t even know iTunes existed.

  6. I’ve written extensively about my experience with MOOCs. I posted notes about my faves. Learn some statistics; it’s fascinating and fundamental to explaining what do we know and how well do we know it.

    Kristin Sainini’s classes in both statistics and writing for the sciences (but really, about good writing) are not to be missed.

  7. Pingback: Serendipity Strikes Again | Bemusability

  8. Thanks so much for this post. I’ve had exactly the same experience as you, that lecturer matters far more than subject matter. I just finished David Blight’s course and was despairing that it might take me a long time to find another good one, hopefully this list will save me that time! BTW, I highly recommend Brad DeLong’s courses on economic history… except they appear to no longer be available on iTunes U 🙁

  9. JAMSisExcitement

    Blight is THE MAN; he even replied to some random nerdy question I emailed him about. I’ve listened to about half of the New York Historical Society’s “sesqucentennial” series (titled “Lincoln & the Civil War”); the discussions with Blight (though some have him listed erroneously) are the best (though James McPherson is awesome as well). I also highly recommend Blight’s (audio)book “A Slave No More.” I’ve listened to “Civil War & Reconstruction” twice and my parents and I have recommended it to everyone we’ve ever met, and gotten excellent feedback – no one could not love Blight!

    Loved the Epidemics one too. Other favorites are the Stanford course on Revolutionary America and the LaTrobe course on the Ottoman Empire. Love iTunes U! Can’t wait to check out your recommendations.

    In case you haven’t already, be sure to check out the “Serial” podcast; not a course, of… course…, but a story about a (wrongful?) murder conviction, delivered in the most gripping presentation…

  10. This is wonderful! Thanks for this precious, valuable information. My favourite is Game Theory and Valuation!

  11. Ancient Greek History by Donald Kagan (episode 1 wasn’t great but from episode 2 onwards it is brilliant).

    Thanks for your recommendations!

  12. I loved Yale Intro to Psych w/ Paul Bloom. Also good were Yale Moral Foundations of Politics, Yale Philosophy and Science of Human Nature, and Yale Intro to Political Philosophy. I noticed your recommendation list is from several years ago, do you have any new favorites?