MOOCS: Should celebrities teach online classes?

As part of the production team, yes of course! The reason South Korean tutors earn multi-millions per year is because they generate engagement and satisfied customers. An education model that requires a teacher or professor to do everything is like a Hollywood producer having to direct, act,   film, promote and distribute the film. Is that a winning scheme?

A savvy student wants to buy the best product for her needs – the quality of that product is ultimately measured by the subject mastery she achieved using the course-product. The innovators like Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity are already finding more effective ways to deliver the concept of “great teaching”. Here’s an excerpt from Jeffrey R. Young writing for Slate:

(…snip…) Casting Damon in a MOOC is just an idea, for now: In meetings, officials have proposed trying one run of a course with someone like Damon, to see how it goes. But even to consider swapping in a star actor for a professor reveals how much these free online courses are becoming major media productions—ones that may radically change the traditional role of professors.

One for-profit MOOC producer, Udacity, already brings in camera-friendly staff members to appear with professors in lecture videos. One example is an introduction to psychology course developed earlier this year in partnership with San Jose State University. It had three instructors: Gregory J. Feist, an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University, who has been teaching for more than 25 years and who wrote a popular textbook on the subject; Susan Snycerski, a lecturer at the university who has taught for 15 years; and Lauren Castellano, a Udacity employee who recently finished a master’s in psychology from the university, advised by Feist.

In the course’s opening lecture, the three stand together and go over the ground rules, but after that, Castellano takes the lead on camera. Feist and Snycerski make regular appearances throughout the 16 lessons, but often only briefly, to explain a concept or two, or to be part of a demonstration or skit with Castellano.

Does it bother the more-experienced professors that they get less screen time than their younger colleague? “That’s a Udacity decision,” said Feist. “They’ve discovered that it works well if you have these younger people doing most of the instruction, but in fact the content is coming from professors. They wanted someone who students can identify with.”

The professors say they typically develop the lessons and then send them to the Udacity employee to turn the lectures into scripts, complete with demonstrations and suggested jokes. For the lesson on sensation and perception, for instance, Castellano came up with the idea of staging a “sense Olympics.” She and another Udacity employee pretended to be news anchors giving updates from contests that demonstrated human senses. The scenes are playful, and the professors even filmed mock advertisements for products related to the lessons, as a way to add variety to what could otherwise have been a series of talking heads lecturing to the camera.

Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s founder, said that he models the approach on the way popular television shows are made. “It’s similar to a newscast these days— they have a dialogue,” he said.

“All our instructors are knowledgeable in the subject area,” Thrun added. “However, we often rely on teams of people to produce a MOOC, and often the individuals who show up on tape are not the primary instructor who composes the materials. This really depends on how camera-shy an instructor is, and how well we believe an instructor is able to do a great job in front of a camera.”

None of us know where this going – but I’m hoping to see Udacity-type experimentation multiplying throughout the education space. We especially need it in K-12 where the institutional structure makes it unspeakably difficult to change.