MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses offered through outfits like Coursera, Udacity, and EdX) have raised the profile of online education and sparked important conversations about educational access and the meaning of academic credentials. But MOOCs have also done a disservice to online teaching in several key respects.
Among other things, they’ve raised the status of the rock star lecturer to the point where normal teaching looks shabby in comparison. And they’ve produced the impression that online courses have to look like TED-talks to pass muster. This is unfortunate. Working in faculty development for a decade, I’ve been struck by how difficult it is to typecast good teachers. At every university, there are dynamic, exciting lecturers: big personalities whose students cluster around them like groupies at the end of class. But there are also quiet teachers who are just as effective for other reasons: their love for the subject, the clarity of their explanations, their ability to render complex ideas in simple language, the time they’re willing to spend helping students outside of class. These are not the personalities or teaching styles that necessarily lend themselves to splashy, MOOC-style teaching, but many of them are truly excellent teachers, the kind students remember long after they graduate. It’s important to me that we not leave these teachers behind. We need to find ways to help all faculty who want to create online courses translate their teaching styles effectively into that environment.
Then there’s MOOC production quality. Admittedly, not all MOOCs have documentary-style pizazz, but those that do create unrealistic expectations about what online courses should look like. Are teams of instructional designers, graphic designers, videographers, and editors really required to create an online course? Who has those kinds of resources? And is it even desirable to produce course materials that are so finished, so polished when teaching, by its very nature, needs to be iterative — especially in fast-changing technical fields? Wouldn’t it be better to keep production simpler and more nimble, so that it’s easier for faculty to make changes and create new courses with minimal dependence on outside resources? Just as we need to develop ways to translate a wider range of teaching styles into online courses, we need to do it in a way that is not reliant on big studio production teams.
So here’s a plug for quieter, more modest, forms of teaching and simpler varieties of course production. Online education is here to stay, so let’s figure out ways to make it sustainable and within the grasp of all faculty — not just the rock stars.