A recent article from Slate reveals that the brains behind Harvard and MIT's edX MOOC program consider Hollywood stars to be better professors than those who spend their lives creating knowledge for students.

“From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well. So just imagine, maybe we get Matt Damon to teach Thévenin's theorem. I think students would enjoy that more than taking it from Agarwal,” said Anant Agarwal, edX's CEO, to Slate.

While I can catalogue a number of problems with this new vision of MOOCs, one of my newest fears, should MOOCs be given the Hollywood treatment, is that the replacement of truly qualified subject matter experts with more photogenic “stars” has the potential to create an acute misrepresentation of humanity in all its rough-and-tumble glory.

Educators, like students, are a mix of ethnicities, races, class levels and abilities. If we are talking about improving potential, wouldn’t it be more inspiring, not to mention educational, to instead learn from someone like the brilliant Stephen Hawking, famous for being an amazing communicator? Despite his mobility and speech challenges due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) Hawking is a dynamic, original thinker who reigns as an intellectual giant. What a tremendous example of perseverance and individual strength for a student to witness.

MOOC Merits and Problems

At this point in our societal discussion of the merits and disadvantages of this new form of online education, boosters and critics have already formed the basic arguments about the value of MOOCs.

Certainly there are potential benefits to MOOCs, including the ability to:

However, MOOCs can also create significant potential problems for student learning.

  • As I noted in a previous post, professors have been criticized for years because the lecture-format, for some, encourages student passivity and isn't engaging enough. The video lecture is merely a change of medium for the same old lecture.
  • Additionally, the potential for cheating in a MOOC program is significant and there are few ways to guarantee students are doing their own work.
  • MOOCs offer the opportunity to build competency-based learning, but it is difficult to verify exactly whose competence is growing in a MOOC.
  • MOOCs “may worsen rather than eliminate inequality by providing credentials empty of the meaning and connections that make credentials valuable,” noted professor Gianpiero Petriglieri in the Harvard Business Review.

Big Data Demands

The real agenda of many colleges offering MOOCs is not necessarily about providing greater opportunity. Sometimes, schools just want to offer MOOCs as a way to gather data. “For Cornell and many other universities, one of the primary benefits of offering MOOCs is the opportunity to analyze large samples of data that can be used to improve teaching methods,” wrote Sherrie Negrea at University Business.

There are also some serious questions about the consistency of quality offered by MOOCs. From InsideHigherEd.com:

“Many of the first MOOCs are providing quality of content, but are far behind the curve in providing quality of design, accountable instructional delivery, or sufficient resources to help the vast majority of students achieve a course's intended learning outcomes.”

Now, thanks to Anant Agarwal, I can add the specter of the “I'm not a professor, I just play one in a MOOC” model of higher education.

While part of me definitely relishes in the thought of Samuel L. Jackson lecturing on the bubonic plague (“I'm tired of these mother&#%ing fleas on these mother&#%ing rats!”), the celebrity edition of the MOOC concept is disheartening to educators like me, who recognize the potential of MOOCS but fear the great damage they might do to education.

After all, what's so wrong with students learning that education is not the same as entertainment, that college should maybe be a little different from a trip to the local multiplex theater?

Maybe, instead of hiring actors as professors, we should teach people how to be better students. After all, there is a lot more to learn from college professors than course content.


This article is a follow-up to the post “Bill Gates Brings MOOCs to Community Colleges,” which offers an alternative to Bill Gates' suggestion for community colleges to adopt the MOOC model.