The Letter 5

Editorial

A new audience for the Collège de France  

Whether our elders like it or not, the Collège de France's motto, Docet Omnia, is incomplete. Docet Omnes Omnia would be more accurate: it teaches everything to everyone. No registration, no constraint: whoever wishes to attend a lecture, symposium or seminar at the Collège de France can do so unconditionally, freely and at no charge. This custom is so rare that both in France and abroad it tends to surprise even our fellow academics. The Collège is neither limited to an academic syllabus, nor delivers qualifications, nor requires its audiences to undergo any test of the knowledge acquired through its teaching. This has been so since 1530, at least in principle, since we are not entirely sure of where and under what conditions the first royal lectors taught. It seems that the earliest audiences were students, scholars from the Latin Quarter and the Montagne Sainte Geneviève, a campus before the term existed. At the Collège they sought knowledge not dispensed by the universities.

Often, when I am presenting the Collège de France and its teaching missions, people ask me what types of audiences attend the lectures. Who comes to the Collège's lectures, what is their level of education, their regularity, their assiduity? What is their motivation? What do they derive from the lectures? Until now there were as many answers to these questions as chairs at the Collège, for each of the professors had some idea of his or her audiences. However, no overall answer could be given because no study had been carried out on the subject. Some of the more highly specialized lectures were faithfully attended by small numbers of the initiated. In contrast, well-to-do crowds thronged to Bergson's lectures, for example, and photos of the time show people clinging to the windows, avidly listening to the master's words. Today, video recordings of the most wellattended lectures are broadcast live in several lecture halls.

We can assume that the question of their audiences was of little concern to the Collège professors in the past and is hardly more of one today. Rightly so, and there is nothing about that that should offend those audiences. As the Collège de France emphasizes, its lectures are above all the fruit of personal work: the demanding, concentrated and intellectual result of each Professor's own research. That is what sets it apart: it is anything but a media exercise. The audiences present in its lecture halls witness the elaboration of an intellectual product, the development of arguments structuring a theory, the disclosure of new discoveries and their interpretation. Very often the lectures lead to the publication of scientific articles or books. The audiences are thus both necessary and contingent: on the one hand they are the indispensable and privileged witnesses of a thought process taking shape and being expressed in vivo before them; on the other, the nature and composition of the audience is of no relevance to the lecture itself.

One has to bear in mind, however, that this knowledge is ultimately intended for the public, and that the public shows a strong demand for knowledge in all scientific disciplines. To teach everyone, the Collège and its lecture halls would be hopelessly insufficient, but the Internet has broadened them to the scale of our planet. And the audiences have followed suit. Statistics on visits to the Collège's website and its multimedia platforms (Daily Motion, iTunes U) have revealed the existence of virtual audiences outnumbering the ones on campus.

To find out who these audiences are and what they hope to get out of the Collège's lectures, we ran a survey on the attendees of Collège de France lectures in early 2010. In parallel, a survey was also run on the Collège's online audiences, in 2009 and in 2010. The results are presented in detail by Henri Leridon in the present issue (p. 57). To sum up those of the survey carried out at the Collège, a profile of the average attendee can be drawn: man or woman, aged over 55, living in or around Paris (Ile de France), with a high cultural level, usually unemployed or retired, and who say they attend the lectures for their personal interest. Over half of them say they attend at least two lecture series. The picture is however not quite as clearcut when it comes to the hard sciences: mathematics, physics and the natural sciences. This public is younger and includes far more students and researchers.

The profile of the average respondent to the Web questionnaire differs considerably from the one above. Most are men, they live in Ile de France (51%), elsewhere in France (35%) or abroad (14%), and the majority are in the 25-34 age-group and are students, teachers or researchers. They follow the lectures for their own interest (63%), for their studies or for professional reasons (37%). Fewer of them have or had positions at a senior managerial level (46%) than in the audiences who attend lectures at the Collège (70%).

These surveys, which were short and therefore partial and imperfect, nevertheless had the merit of producing an outline of the Collège de France's virtual audiences for the first time, and of enabling us to compare them to its traditional audiences who attend lectures on campus. This calls for several comments:

1. First, by making its lectures available on its website, the Collège de France has met an expectation. In less than three years, large new audiences have discovered the institution, subscribed to its podcasts, and started to use the published versions of its lectures (in text, audio and video format) for their personal interest or for learning, teaching and research purposes. The Collège's teaching is no longer reserved only for a few fortunate inhabitants of Paris and surrounding areas, as we wrote in the editorial of the Lettre du Collège de France in June 2006; it is now accessible to all.

2. The Collège's new online audiences are younger and are mostly students or employed. In addition there are the PhD students who are hosted by the Collège for their research, essentially in the mathematical, physical and natural sciences (320 students in 2010). These young people will in turn impart the knowledge that they acquired at the Collège.

3. The answers to the survey questionnaires as well as free comments show that Internet users are loyal and are satisfied with the Collège's lectures on the Web, as are the audiences that attend lectures on campus.

4. The diversity of the Collège's offer in terms of content and educational media is a valuable asset that should be preserved. The survey shows that all types of media interest Internet users and that we should not favour any particular one. In this spirit, the Collège is currently putting online the texts of certain lectures, as well as other types of content: inaugural lectures, the Collège de France yearly report, the Letter of the Collège de France, and other text documents (notably on the site revues.org).

5. The survey revealed that 14% of the Internet users do not live in France. This is a strong encouragement to make the Collège known beyond our borders, both in French-speaking countries and beyond. The next step would therefore be to have certain lectures and seminars translated into English so that they can be disseminated throughout the world. In this way the Collège will actively contribute to promoting French science and culture internationally.

6. The surveys on the Collège's different audiences enabled us obtain the first overview on the subject in 2010. It would be useful to carry out such surveys regularly so that we can see how these audiences evolve over time, and evaluate the services that we deliver.

The digital dissemination of knowledge has multiplied the Collège de France's audiences by a factor of 10 to 100. The public concerned corresponds precisely to the target that the Collège wanted to attain: those listeners whose presence is "virtual" yet very real, and who want to acquire more in-depth knowledge in various research fields.

The survey on Internet users is an encouragement to perpetuate and amplify this approach, by maintaining the same high standards of teaching which make the Collège's lectures so valuable and interesting, both online and on campus. For the Collège's aim is not only to teach everyone, but also to give them the best.

Professor Pierre Corvol
Administrator of the Collège de France