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A Lifetime of Wisdom, Free for the Taking
Durham, NC - A half century ago, Victor Strandberg paid $250 a year to get a degree from his local university. It would have cost twice that much, but he had a scholarship.
He needed it, too. The son of a factory worker, Strandberg was raised in modest circumstances, a blue-collar upbringing that drilled into him the value of hard work.
So even now, after 46 years on Duke's English faculty, Strandberg isn't straying far from those working-class roots.
Strandberg recently filmed 25 lectures on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, one of his areas of expertise. He shipped the lectures off to a company called Udemy, which is emerging as a new force in the fast-growing world of free online courseware. Udemy will post Strandberg's lectures on its website for anyone who wants to view them. While Udemy sells some of its content, it is offering Strandberg's lectures and others free of charge.
Strandberg isn't being paid. The 77-year-old says this is a chance to pay his knowledge forward. It's also an acknowledgement that higher education is out of reach for many who simply can't afford it.
"I left college without owing one cent to anybody," Strandberg says. "That's a rare experience now, if you come from a working-class family. In a sense, I'd consider this my legacy."
Strandberg's free course is pretty basic. There's no student interaction, no tests, no final grade. Strandberg simply set up a makeshift studio in his basement -- dressing it up using bookshelves as a backdrop -- and lectured into a camera. It's amateur enough that you might at one point hear his dogs barking in the background. Once the lectures are posted, anyone can watch them.
"It's for the pure love of learning," Strandberg says. "People who crave understanding will find some useful purpose to it."
More than 400 people have signed up to view the lectures so far. They'll watch lectures roughly 20 minutes in length, which, for a professor accustomed to lecturing for an hour or more, can be a challenge, Strandberg says.
But technology experts say one of the benefits of online courses is the ability to offer shorter snippets and a far more flexible schedule than are generally available in the bricks-and-mortar college setting.
"With open courses, you can experiment outside the normal business model with a 12-week semester and a regular academic calendar," says Lynne O'Brien, Duke's director of academic technology and instructional services.
Strandberg is calling his course "Classics of American Literature: The Poetry of T.S. Eliot," and he pledges to deliver nearly the same product he does in a classroom on campus.
But not quite. He knows he's experimenting with something new and understands he may be creating competition for the product Duke students pay for. So his online course won't address "Four Quartets," a set of four major poems Eliot wrote over a decade.
"I don't want to give away all my merchandise," he says.
Strandberg doesn't know how his course will be received, nor does he know whether Udemy will ask him to contribute again. He hopes the company does come knocking. He already has his next topic lined up: Moby Dick, a tough read he's confident he can make more clear to even a novice reader.
"It'll be great," he says. "No jargon. Nothing hifalutin."
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