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My Summer at Yale by Bob Sprankle

Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world... It will be better than any single university."

Bill Gates, August 6, 2010 at Techonomy Conference

Holy cow... I can't believe I've just started another blog post with a quote from Bill Gates! (You can go HERE to see my previous use of "Gates Wisdom.") The question is: Is he correct? Is this the future for my daughter's college career? Will I actually be able to persuade her to save her money and get all her education for free from the web? Will there be a way for her to get credit for knowledge gained on her own and to prove to her future employers that she in fact received this outstanding education as Bill Gates predicts? How will this work? There must be a way to document "seat time" on the Internet just as easily as "sleep time" in actual brick and mortar classrooms.

Apple announced this week that files downloaded from iTunes U have reached 300 million! If we take a conservative guess that on average those files are an hour long (which many lecture files are), then we're talking about 300 million hours of learning. Surely we should be able to at least pull a few Bachelor Degrees out of that pile.

When I presented a workshop about Podcasting this past summer, teachers reported that the biggest "take away" for them was learning about iTunes University. A majority of the audience had no idea that it existed. I took extra time showing all the goodies that iTunes U had to offer and shared my own experiences of courses and presentations that I've downloaded (for free) from the 3 categories offered by iTunes U: "Universities & Colleges," "Beyond Campus," and "K-12." Again and again, audience members asked me," And this is all free?"

Free, free, free, free, free. Teachers love free.

This summer I've been enrolled in an amazing course at Yale: "The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877 with Professor David Blight." Having previously listened to 30 some hours of the audiobook, "Roots" in my daily drives to and from work, I wanted to learn more about the Civil War, and in particular, Reconstruction. My first approach was to search Amazon for books on the subject and immediately found myself in a sea of 2,500 results, with absolutely no idea which were gems and which were stinkers. Sure, the reviews helped a lot, but I wanted to find an expert; someone who could give me a complete picture of events leading up to the war, as well as make the history come alive and have relevant connection to present day. "Who better than a professor?" I thought.

Within minutes of searching iTunes U, I found Professor David Blight's incredible course from Yale. This was my first Yale download (I've mostly hung out at MIT's page) and I was amazed to find that not only could I download the complete audio of Prof. Blight's course (27 lectures), but that I could also go to the Yale site and watch the video of his presentations! On top of that, I no longer had to worry about all the great books and resources that were mentioned in the lectures that I wanted to follow up on but couldn't write down while listening to the audio and operating a car because... the entire transcript of the lectures are also posted online! Not to mention the syllabus... and the paper assignments he gave the students... and the Review paper for the Final Exam.

Free, free, free, free, free.

I'm coming up on the last stretch of the course (Lincoln's just been assassinated, and we're heading for Reconstruction), and I cannot express how wonderful an experience this has been. I will sorely miss the profound examinations and the detailed telling of the story from this amazing professor, in his sometimes whimsical, sometimes somber delivery, with a syrupy Midwestern drawl that makes me feel like I'm listening to "Prairie Home Companion" with Garrison Keilor.

I understand the Civil War better than I ever have before and if there's anything that Prof. Blight doesn't know about the time period or hasn't shared in these lectures, I can't even imagine what it could be.

My plan is to read all 27 transcripts when finished with the audio... not only as a review, but to also highlight and capture essential points, insights, and resources that I wasn't able to when just listening to it. Prof. Blight has provided me with an armload of books to read after that, and of course, now when I return to Amazon, I know exactly which books are the gems and will definitely hone in on the works that Blight himself has produced (note: the ones I can afford; ah, textbooks!).

Question: Was the experience of listening to the audio lectures equal to or comparative to the experience of actually sitting in the classroom at Yale? Of course not (after all, it's Yale!). But for me and for thousands and thousands of others, it was the only way into this opportunity of a lifetime (invaluable and for free!), and I can truly say, we live in amazing times.

Personally, I think I enjoyed the lectures more not being in the classroom, sitting for an hour each session. All summer long, I mowed the grass with Prof. Blight. Took long walks with Prof. Blight. Went jogging with Prof. Blight. Drove to the beach with Prof. Blight. Most of the time, when one hour's program ended, I went right into the next lecture, not having to wait for days as his students had to do when it unfolded in "real time."

In short, it's been a great summer hanging out with Prof. Blight. I have a much better understanding of our country's history. I realize parallels between a divided nation of the past and events playing out in our country today. Gosh darn it... I feel smarter! My deep thanks and gratitude go out to Professor Blight and Yale, and all the other folks putting great content out there for free.

Here's my closing thought: Not only are these resources (free!) great for teachers like me, or, as I've often heard, great for Advanced Placement classes or students identified as Gifted and Talented, but I think it's essential that we introduce these resources to all students. It's apparent from my experience training teachers this summer that most people don't even know of the existence of such resources. Students should also realize their availability and value, and perhaps will be equipped to take advantage of a better education at a significantly decreased financial commitment, as Bill Gates professes.

Another reason I think students need to know about these resources ---in particular, the University offerings--- is that they can have an opportunity to "sit in" on real classes and sample many disciplines as they begin to formulate college and career decisions during high school. For instance, a student may think "I want to be a psychology major," and then listen in on a sampling of University lectures and realize that this is not really what his/her calling is. How many of us changed our major in college once we realized it really wasn't our "cup of tea?"

A great site to point students to is "Open Culture" (http://www.openculture.com/), where:

"Open Culture editor Dan Colman scours the web for the best educational media. He finds the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & movies you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between."

They even have an iPhone app!

Free, free, free, free, free.