Instructors Have Little to Fear, and Much to Gain, by Bringing MOOCs Into the Classroom

As the spring academic semester winds down, many university instructors, ranging from tenured professors to part-time lecturers and teaching assistants, are likely reflecting on what aspects of their courses went well and which parts were unsuccessful. Intertwined with these assessments is an increasingly large-scale discussion of the use of MOOCs to either augment or replace traditional college courses. Earlier this month, for example, faculty members at San Jose State University publicly rejected the use of Michael Sandel's Justice MOOC, saying that it would compromise the school's quality of education and ability to compete in the academic marketplace.

This semester, I was fortunate enough to teach in a number of different educational environments at several schools in the Boston area -- a couple of 200-student lectures and a 25-person MBA course as well as a teaching assistant gig for a hybrid of a traditional and a distance-learning course. What I took away from this variety of experiences was not only the differing impacts they had on students but also the huge influence that the course structures had on my perception of the value I was able to provide.

On one front, there is the much-discussed relationship between learning experience and class size. As a student, I'm not convinced that I had a strong preference one way or the other. As an instructor, however, the difference is night and day. If I am at all representative, instructors really don't like only being able to name a small percentage of their students. (Personally, I will probably never feel worse as an educator than I did when I had to be told by a teaching assistant that one my students was injured in the Boston Marathon bombings because be recognized her from photos whereas I did not.) Furthermore, I am confident that I could have made more of an educational impact meeting with each of my students for 15 minutes or by holding problem-solving sessions for small groups of students than by spending the equivalent amount of time repackaging and delivering lectures that I had given numerous times before. Ideally, I would have time to do both, but that isn't an option given the time and other resources available.

That said, class-size variation was not the biggest determinant of the satisfaction I derived from teaching. Instead, what I noticed most was that, as a teaching assistant, I was viewed as a trusted resource who was working on the side of the students to help them navigate the material and requirements set out by the main instructor. As that main instructor, on the other hand, I was seen as that thing standing between the students and the grades and diplomas that they want. Psychologically, it's difficult to ask questions or admit weakness to the person whose job it is to judge you, and this phenomenon creates an impediment to learning and exploring in many instructor-student environments. Yes, I have to grade students as an instructor, but I see that aspect of my job as a formality compared to the acts of teaching and (hopefully) inspiring. I'm the same person in both environments, but the students I was a teaching assistant for said thank you (and got me presents!) whereas the other students mainly followed up to ask why their grades weren't as high as they thought they should be. It shouldn't shock anyone that one of those communications leaves me with far more of a sense of accomplishment than the other.

All of this really got me thinking about San Jose State and the role of MOOCs in the university curriculum. Granted, they are likely mostly appropriate for standardized courses such as calculus, economic theory, organic chemistry, and so on (as opposed to more customized or discussion-based courses), but MOOCs offer a huge potential to offer not only lecture content but also university-level problem sets and exams, and therefore would not only enable instructors to redefine their role from authority figure to student advocate but also allow them to switch over from play-by-play to color commentary, if you will. (Everyone knows that the color guys have way more fun.) MOOCs, properly documented on college transcripts, could also help employers compare students across institutions and enable lower-ranked schools to credibly convey that they offer the same level of instruction as higher-ranked institutions. As a private tutor, I've seen a number of substandard practices -- group exams, no exams, and much more -- at surprisingly prestigious universities, so I certainly believe that there is a benefit to having course curricula and standards be more transparent.

Critics of MOOCs are probably not wrong when they lament that the courses are going to create multiple types of instructor, but I wonder how much of their objection is driven by ego rather than reason. I probably have just as much of an ego as most others in my field (just ask anyone who knows me!), but my experience got me to realize that the level of respect and admiration one gets from students depends on much more than whether one is at a podium in the front of a lecture hall. As such, I think that these critics are short-sighted in not realizing that this could be a good thing not only for students but also for their own job satisfaction.