The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.
Professor Kaye Adkins, author of this guest post, teaches at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri.
In its May 15 edition, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with Daphne Koller a co-founder and co-chief executive of Coursera (“Coursera Defends MOOCs as Road to Learning,” Managing, p. B5). In the interview, Koller explains “where teachers fit into the new model” offered by MOOCs (massive open online classes). After reading the interview, I now have a better of sense of why MOOCs make me, and so many college professors, uncomfortable. The interview revealed that a fundamental misunderstanding of effective, engaging teaching is at the core of the MOOC philosophy.
In the interview, Koller states that the goal of companies like Coursera is to change the role of teachers, so that “a teacher will have more time to spend teaching, as opposed to spending time in content development and preparation and in grading endless repetitions of the same assignment.” This is the core of what is wrong with the MOOC model: Good teachers are not simply content delivery systems. Think about the best and worst classes that you took in college. The best ones included engaged teachers and students in a lively give and take. The worst ones consisted of a professor standing at a lectern, droning on, delivering the textbook material. To call someone a teacher when they simply communicate with students about course material that they did not develop, prepare, or grade is a bit like calling someone a chef who simply delivers a gourmet meal to your table that they did not plan, prepare, or taste.
That bothersome content development, preparation, and grading? It’s at the core of what good teachers do. Good teachers develop the content for their courses by conducting research and studying the research of others in their field. At the end of each class period, they take stock in what happened that day—what students seemed to “get” and what they didn’t, what interested them, and what current news and debates can be connected to the content of the course—and they adjust their plans for the next class accordingly. Can grading be tedious? Of course. (As a writing teacher, I do a lot of grading.) But it is through grading students’ work that teachers understand how well their students are learning and how to adjust the course materials to improve the education experience for each student.
Separating content development, course preparation, grading, and content delivery does, indeed, change teaching, but for the worse. Koller herself recognizes that universities have “played a critical role in the shaping” of “amazingly gifted scholars, researchers, and teachers.” Those scholars, researchers, and teachers are gifted precisely because of their integrated approach to teaching.
Any good teacher will tell you that the primary work of education happens away from the classroom. MOOCs might be useful for self-enrichment courses, but as long as they deliver education in a piecemeal fashion, they will not be models of good teaching.