The “Rock Star” Professor

The NY Times’ fascinating report on the rise of the MOOC raises questions about what we might call the “Professors of the Future”:

Udacity courses are designed and produced in-house or with companies like Google and Microsoft. In a poke at its university-based competition, Dr. Stavens says they pick instructors not because of their academic research, as universities do, but because of how they teach. “We reject about 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us,” he says. “Just because a person is the world’s most famous economist doesn’t mean they are the best person to teach the subject.” Dr. Stavens sees a day when MOOCs will disrupt how faculty are attracted, trained and paid, with the most popular “compensated like a TV actor or a movie actor.” He adds that “students will want to learn from whoever is the best teacher.”

The implications are enormous, and difficult to sift through.

First, let’s look at the potential positives.

For one, this might create a healthy division of labor:  researchers can research, teachers can teach.  Academics who prefer, and excel at, teaching, would have a whole new set of professional opportunities to not only hone and perfect their craft, but be handsomely rewarded for their talent, skill, and labor.  Those who prefer and excel at research would, unburdened by teaching responsibilities (consider the term most often used to describe the latter:  “load”), be free to pursue their research agenda.  Students would get teachers who are wholly vested.  And the quality of research would improve since fewer academics would be firing off articles hastily written in the wee hours of the morning, after their teaching work is done (and their brains are burnt).  And more importantly, the pool of publication would be less saturated with lower quality work.  With the compulsion to publish–for the sake of publishing–removed, we would see less subpar material; which means less junk for researchers to sift through as they hunt for fresh ideas.

Second, this creates the opportunity for “rock star” teachers who, as the article says, would be paid more like actors.  We commonly hear laments about the status of teaching as a profession in America today.  The mocking of graduate students knows no end:

People point to countries like South Korea, where the social value of teaching is widely recognized and appropriately compensated.  Talented teachers would have both the opportunity and the incentive to work hard to develop their craft even more.  Moreover, this would be a great incentive to attract the best and brightest–and those with breadth of experience beyond the academic world–to teaching.  Thomas Friedman pointed to the need for this kind of partnership between the university and the private sector just this Sunday.  In this vein, teachers, in learning how to pitch their courses in an online format, would likely acquire skills that would enable them to succeed in other careers.  So what we would get in this new professional ecosystem, for good or ill, would be a new mutation, a new animal:  the non-academic professional who teaches courses online on the side.  And so students would be learning, not from academics who have spent barely any time in the workforce, but from those those who’ve spent ample time working in the relevant industries; those, in other words, who are probably more able to transmit the skills that employers desire, but often find lacking, in college graduates.

However, a potential downside would be the amount of room at the top.  By “privatizing” teaching in this way, teaching could become more and more like music or acting:  high risk, high reward, the 1% (more like .00001%) of stars at the top, and the starving 99% at the bottom.  It could, in other words, be even worse than the status quo, in which 67% of faculty in American higher education are contingent.

And notice the problems this would create for the traditional university model.  If more and more of the teaching is done online, there is less and less of a need for the clunky, infrastructural physicality of a university campus.  Moreover, if research and teaching are decoupled, the place of “pure researchers” in the academy seems strange.  The two have traditionally been coupled, it seems to me, in part because they mutually enrich each other:  students benefit from learning with teachers who are at the cutting edge in their fields, and teachers benefit from having their ideas tested and challenged in the classroom.

Yet the place of master teachers in the academy would be threatened as well:  with more lucrative opportunities calling from beyond the academy, what incentive would the great teachers have for sticking around?  Of course, it need not be either/or; presumably, many great teachers would continue at their primary university employer, and moonlight creating online courses.

Finally, another potential downside:  the promotion of “edu-tainment” and the radicalization of the consumer approach to education:

While there are traditional academics like David Evans of the University of Virginia, “Landmarks in Physics,” a first-year college-level course, is taught by Andy Brown, a 2009 M.I.T. graduate with a B.S. in physics. “We think the future of education is guys like Andy Brown who produce the most fun,” Dr. Stavens says.

Ideally, the university is supposed to be a place as free as possible of the (arguably) disordering and dehumanizing effects of the market.  Admittedly, this vision of the university as a secular sacred space sealed off from the profane realm of market forces–the dark and corrupting powers of advertising, consumerism, entertainment, and materialism–sounds outdated, but we should ask ourselves what the pressure to entertain our students really asks of us, does to us, and does to them.  Sure, almost everyone will admit that learning can and should be stimulating and pleasurable, but “fun”?

A related danger with the online model is what we might call the “Brown-ing” of curricula, after Brown University’s well-known unstructured, open-ended, DIY curriculum:  a cafeteria approach in which each person crafts their course of study to their heart’s desire.  The notion that someone could obtain credits by taking a few courses from an online university in a couple of narrow fields that would equip them with the skills to begin a successful career in a given industry seems harmless.  But the notion that this could be so common as to alter our cultural understanding of what it means to be an educated person is barbaric.  Part of the logic of a core curriculum–part of the broader cultural meaning and social function of a university education–is that eduction is largely about having one’s default settings challenged; that there are some things that are more worth knowing than others; things that every citizen should know; things that the vicissitudes of a students’ interests and desires, of consumer demand, of global competition (“we’ve got to beat the Chinese!”), and of what industries are hiring (STEM–Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), should not override.

As George Costanza put it:  “We’re trying to have a civilization here.”

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4 Replies to “The “Rock Star” Professor”

  1. Great post! I like the fact that MOOCs realize the value of teaching. Perhaps it’s a lesson that the mainstream universities could learn. However, as you mention, the brave new world might be worse than the status quo, with a handful of ‘rock star’ professors digitally distributed to millions of students. It makes the current glut of PhD’s, including yours truly, feel even more redundant.

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