Would You Take A CompSci Course Taught By Matt Damon?

Some MOOC providers hope so:

“From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX, who was until recently a computer-science professor at MIT. “So just imagine, maybe we get Matt Damon to teach Thévenin’s theorem,” he added, referring to a concept that Agarwal covers in a MOOC he teaches on circuits and electronics. “I think students would enjoy that more than taking it from Agarwal.”

Casting Damon in a MOOC is just an idea, for now: In meetings, officials have proposed trying one run of a course with someone like Damon, to see how it goes. But even to consider swapping in a star actor for a professor reveals how much these free online courses are becoming major media productions—ones that may radically change the traditional role of professors.

Jeffrey Young notes that one MOOC provider, Udacity, already employs scriptwriters who turn lecture notes into productions “complete with demonstrations and suggested jokes.” He adds, “At least one long-time distance education expert argues that it makes sense to look for acting talent rather than deep content knowledge to appear on camera”:

“Having people who are really good at explaining ideas and putting the right graphics and videos around them can create a pretty darn good learning experience,” said Russell Poulin, a researcher with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. “I’m assuming Matt Damon wouldn’t be answering the questions from students,” he added.

In fact, he argued that one benefit of online learning is that the various parts of the professor’s role can be “pulled apart.” In an online course, he argued, there’s no reason to have the same person develop the content, deliver it, and run assessments, when people with skills in each of those areas can work together to create clearer and more effective lessons.

That essentially argues for treating the development of a MOOC like a Hollywood production, with long credits at the end of the many specialists who teamed up on a shared vision. There’s a director running the show, but no one expects the same person to also act all the roles.

Previous Dish on MOOCs here, here, and here.