Pedagogy, performance and the MOOC

Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) is a term that’s always struck me as a little tongue-in-cheek, aiming for hyperbole before we’ve even figured out the best ways to use them.  I also think that the term is useful because it’s fun to say – I’m taking a MOOC at the moment on strategies for information visualization, and simply being able to say “IVMOOC” on a daily basis has made the process that much more fun.  I suppose somewhere on the internet there’s always a flurry of discussion around things like digital pedagogy, but that flurry has been intersecting with my life quite a lot of late – most recently in Thomas Friedman’s piece today about the ways in which MOOCs produce celebrity professors.

I think that Friedman is right that MOOCs are more or less here to stay, and that while schools, professors and students are still figuring out how they can work best/better, the MOOC revolution has come.  Where I ran into trouble was this paragraph:

We demand that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach. No more. The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.

The somewhat flip suggestion that people with advanced degrees who teach in colleges haven’t been “certified to do what they do” seems a little straw-mannish to me.  At least on paper, many terminal degree programs, from DFAs to PHDs include some measure of pedagogical training – or at least the possibility of pedagogical training for those who think they might want to go into teaching.  In many places, though, this training is “hands on” – through positions as graders, TAs or course instructors.  We’re meant to learn on our feet gradually (at my institution, at least), first by figuring out how to fairly grade undergraduate essays, then in the relatively structured environment of the recitation section, and finally in classrooms of our own.  So the training is there.  Friedman is right, however, that many institutions don’t give the kind of directed pedagogical training that we get with regards to our research. (This isn’t true in all places, and I’d venture a guess that most PhD programs have some mechanism for pedagogical training, even if it’s not formally built into the curriculum).  Those of us who want more vis-a-vis pedagogy are  free to find it, but we mostly learn by watching and doing, and then go out and do, to be watched, by a whole new generation of students.

I’d also venture that what Friedman is talking about is as much about presentation as it is about good pedagogy.  Understanding how to tailor a syllabus to a class full of students with very different learning styles is, I think, a sign of a good teacher, but that probably doesn’t translate particularly well to the filmed MOOC environment.  On the other hand, people who are professional performers know that it can take an awful lot of work to learn how to project charisma, confidence and character on stage or film.  Whether we like it or not, students consuming MOOC material seem as likely to react positively to that as they do to the actual content of the course.  This isn’t to say that I think that all academics need acting lessons, but only that things are a little more complicated than what Friedman is calling for in that paragraph.

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