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Don’t Call Us Rock Stars

Ah, the life of a superprofessor. Since I started teaching a massive open online course, I’ve been called “Internet royalty” by the Financial Times and been told I had great skin on the public-radio show Marketplace. This must be what the edX president Anant Agarwal meant when, responding to concerns that MOOCs were overhyped, he asked, “What better to hype than education? For the first time, you’re going to make the teacher a rock star” (Information Week).

And you know what? I hate it.

It’s not that I mind the attention, or the compliments. I’m always happy to give my parents some material to show that their son the academic isn’t wasting his life in the ivory tower. And it’s validating to be recognized for the hard work I’ve put into teaching about a new subject in a new way. No, what troubles me is what the myth of the MOOC instructor as rock star implies. It’s not just wrong; it’s dangerous.

Agarwal isn’t the only one framing things this way. The notion that a growing share of courses will be taught by renowned “superprofs” permeates the MOOC conversation. And it’s easy to understand why. What teacher wouldn’t want hundreds of thousands of adoring fans? What student wouldn’t want the pedagogical equivalent of Bono or Bruce Springsteen giving their lectures?

We need to stop talking this way. Reinforcing the view of MOOC instructors as rock stars is bad for professors, bad for universities, and, most important, bad for students.

I say this as a MOOC supporter and the instructor of the Coursera MOOC on gamification (motivating people using techniques from game design). I’ve now taught two sessions, and I’m getting ready for a third, with a total of over 150,000 registrations from more than 150 countries. It has been the most exciting and rewarding teaching experience of my life. I see huge potential for MOOCs to improve education, both inside and outside the academy.

Yet I’m not blind to the dangers. MOOCs can and will make some things worse, even as they make others better. And if we as faculty members don’t conscientiously push MOOCs in the right direction, they might well do more harm than good.

The rock-star meme implies that teaching is all about performance. What happens on stage is still what matters, even if techno-hip educators supplant traditional sages. Talk of rock-star faculty members reinforces the static lecture model that MOOCs were, ironically, developed in part to destroy. The audience at a rock concert is listening, not interacting. Decades of research and a modicum of common sense confirm that students engage and learn more through active participation in the classroom. For all the talk of personalized analytics and adaptive learning, MOOCs built around faculty rock stars will just transfer the lean-back experience of the lecture hall to a screen.

It doesn’t have to be this way. One of the greatest and least remarked-upon benefits of MOOCs is to open up room for experimentation in teaching. Today there’s as much variation among MOOC offerings as there is between MOOCs and “traditional” courses. The first MOOCs were loosely coordinated collaborative conversations, in which the faculty member served at most as a curator and shepherd. Even among the more structured xMOOCs, some are polished, scripted, high-production-value lectures, while others have a distinctly do-it-yourself ethos. I did all the instructional design and video editing personally for my MOOC, for example. Think coffeehouse singer-songwriter vs. packaged pop star.

The more a MOOC is defined as an expensively staged experience supported by an army of back-stage roadies, the less risk-taking and pedagogical experimentation we’ll see. And the less we faculty members will own our teaching. I don’t mean just in the intellectual-property sense. I mean that, like many rock stars, we’ll be “the talent” out front, but not the ones controlling the creative process. And as I discovered in my MOOC, students can tell. They don’t take MOOCs to watch brilliant actors perform; they do so to learn from and connect with human beings.

Most worrisome, calling MOOC instructors rock stars implies something about the overwhelming majority of faculty members who don’t, or won’t, or can’t teach a MOOC. When someone speaks about giving students access to the “best” professors, there’s serious baggage attached. The most effective teachers may not be best suited to the MOOC performance model, or they may not work for the research-oriented institutions that have the resources and reputation to be net producers of MOOCs. In fact, they almost certainly don’t.

This is where the danger becomes apparent. You can bet that, for all the talk about freeing faculty members to focus on personalized instruction, some cash-strapped administrators will try to replace the master teachers on their own faculties with inexperienced teaching assistants, now that the distant rock stars are doing the heavy lifting. If we’re going to use the music industry as a model, we ought to remember that for every celebrity rock star, there are thousands upon thousands of struggling musicians. Is that the future we want for higher education? In some ways, it’s not so far from the present.

And this leads to a final fact: Rock stars don’t have responsibility. Mick Jagger and Kurt Cobain aren’t like you and me, because they get to do all sorts of crazy, destructive things without fear of consequences. (And when they crash and burn, we get the guilty pleasure of watching the train wreck.)

That’s not what faculty members should aspire to. We’re not performance artists, and we’re not mercenaries. We have exquisite freedoms, but not of that sort. We have obligations to our institutions and our colleagues and our students. And part of our job is to communicate to students, as they go out into the world, that they have responsibilities to others.

Perhaps it’s already too late. In an article in The Chronicle earlier this year, several MOOC instructors waved off concerns about how their courses might be used. I was reminded of the musical comedian Tom Lehrer’s satirical take on the Nazi and later American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun: “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department …”

Fortunately, not all MOOC teachers are so blithe. The more we hear about rock stars and superprofs, though, the harder it will be to engage in conversations about the risks and how to mitigate them.

We’ve progressively lost the ideal of higher education as a communal investment to promote an empowered citizenry and an enlightened public discourse, not just a financial equation in which tuition goes in and job training comes out. Used well, MOOCs could push against that trend, by opening up the university and its faculty in new ways. As a big glittering stage for a small number of superstar performers, however, MOOCs will make things worse.

So, thanks for the kind words. Maybe I do have nice skin. But I’m no rock star.

Kevin Werbach is an associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Follow him on Twitter at @kwerb.

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