Like Lucy, Charlie Brown and the football.

7 02 2013

When I told my department that Hell could freeze over and I STILL wouldn’t teach online, what I meant was that I wouldn’t teach online here because I know I wouldn’t have the freedom, time or technological support in order to do it right. There are enough professors blogging now about creating MOOCs for me to realize that dealing with an outside provider limits their freedom to create their own MOOC even more.

That said, the kind of MOOC that the multi-talented historian and University of Richmond President Ed Ayers writes about here* sounds awesome:

We call this model “generative scholarship”: It is scholarship built to generate, as it is used, new questions, evidence, conclusions, and audiences. Online courses will be ideal environments to further this kind of scholarship. Thousands of people in a MOOC or a dozen in a small class at a liberal-arts college can collaborate as they find and share new patterns and insights. Students from many backgrounds can contribute to conversations about matters of enduring consequence.

Generative scholarship need not be of immense scale and complexity. Its value comes from the meaningful integration of student involvement and the creation of new perspectives. Those goals can be produced by the close analysis of a single text as well as of a full corpus of an author’s work, by a thoughtful examination of a single episode as well as of national or international patterns. Generative scholarship, moreover, can work across all disciplines, in big-data projects in science and social science, as well as in focused humanities projects.

I’d oversee something like that, assuming anybody around here let me. Of course, I’m not holding my breath. In more amenable climes, I believe they call this kind of thing (along with many other fine ideas) the “digital humanities.” The reason the digital humanities interest me is that they wouldn’t replace face-to-face classes. Instead, they could supplement the offerings on campuses everywhere. Use technology to create new kinds of classes that can’t be done face-to-face, I say. Then give students the opportunity to do things the old way AND the new way at the same time.

Yet we could only do this right if the powers that be would let professors run the show. Unfortunately, I think the illusion that we can run the show is one of the necessary enticements to attract superprofessors in the first place. What a shame it will be when many of them gradually discover that they have a lot less power than they think they do. That shame won’t be for them, of course. They’re the “best of the best.” The shame will be for the displaced faculty members who’ll have to pay for other people’s mistakes.

* Yes, the piece was behind the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s evil paywall the first time I tried to read it. However, in a shocking display of practicality, my campus is currently testing a campus-wide online subscription to the Chronicle so I can actually read the whole thing now. Should you be one of the enormous number of “More or Less Bunk” fans at Colorado State University – Pueblo, *cough* Doug and Kristen *cough* please e-mail Rhonda immediately so that they will make this permanent, OK? If you don’t have any way to access the whole article, the national treasure known to most people as “John Fea” has excerpted more of it here.




8 responses

7 02 2013
Jonathan Dresner

I’m increasingly convinced that MOOCs should be seen as the next step in textbook publishing. Publishers have been developing deskilled plug-n-play curricula for years now: textbooks come with test banks, homework, chapter outline powerpoints. This has greatly facilitated the adjunctification process: any yahoo with a Ph.D. can, ostensibly, teach basic/intro courses, and preparation time and development are removed from the equation. This just adds the lectures to the mix, in precisely the same kind of half-assed, half-integrated fashion as the textbook auxiliary materials, with the pedagogy presumed rather than considered.

We should be treating it like publishing, not teaching: reviewing the materials critically. There’s no excuse, though, for treating them like courses, any more than we should treat an unsupervised student skimming a textbook, ticking off some multiple choice online questions and watching a History Channel miniseries should be treated like someone who actually took a course.

7 02 2013
Derek Bruff

Thanks for the link to my recent blog post about the Coursera preparation process at Vanderbilt. I’ll note that I’m not a professor, however! I direct the Center for Teaching here and am playing a supporting role in our Coursera initiative.

I’ll also add that working with an outside provider has been somewhat limiting, but perhaps not as limited as you imagine. Our faculty have a fair amount of freedom to innovate in their courses. Our nutrition course will feature some fascinating guest speakers, the business course is experimenting with small group projects, and the course focusing on online gaming will be, I think, unlike anything that’s run on Coursera before.

The Coursera platform itself is somewhat limiting–it doesn’t support small groups, for instance–but all platforms have their limitations, third-party or otherwise.

I love the model that Ed Ayers describes. In fact, just yesterday I tweeted a few ideas for digital humanities MOOCs in which students participated in crowdsourced research projects. I’d love to see faculty experiment in that direction, with or without Coursera.

7 02 2013
Jonathan Rees

Thanks Derek,

I can certainly understand why you wouldn’t want to talk superprofessor salary if you’re not a superprofessor. Now I’m also wondering how limiting your superprofessors themselves will find your process. Certainly I’d chafe at what you describe, but the salary would help me overcome those restrictions. If the MOOC machine runs itself though, how long will Coursera even need those superprofessors?

7 02 2013
Derek Bruff

Yes, lack of autonomy can often be made more palatable through compensation! It’s hard for me to say how limiting our Coursera faculty find the process here. They all seem willing and able to experiment in the ways they want to. As I mentioned, the limitations of the platform itself pose something of a challenge, but they’re approaching those limitations with some creativity.

I have to ask why you use the term “superprofessor” here. I can read that term several different ways. What do you mean when you use it?

7 02 2013
Jonathan Rees


Superprofessor has entered the lexicon as the name of the professor doing the teaching in any MOOC course. I’m not sure who coined it or when, but I’ve seen it enough to know that it has become value-neutral for most people who use it.

Personally, I used to associate it with “Superman” in an ironic sort of way, but now I think of it as super as in “superscript,” as a term that describes their metaphorical placement with respect to the gigantic crowd in the MOOC.

20 02 2013

Interesting. Your blog is the first I’ve heard the “superprofessor” term, and I track MOOC news fairly closely. Sounds like there’s a whole community of people thinking about MOOCs that I haven’t tapped into.

The term strikes me as mocking, as in, Who are these “superprofessors” who think everyone in the world wants to watch their lecture videos? I certainly don’t think that professors developing MOOCs would use the term to refer to themselves. (Well, maybe one or two of them would…)

As a mathematician, I also think of supersets, which are sets that contain other sets. That metaphor doesn’t work here, however, since the professors teaching MOOCs don’t typically have other professors “contained” within them, working as teaching staff for the MOOC.

7 02 2013
Spanish Prof

Today I read an interesting exchange on Facebook, between two professors at the university where I got my PhD (decently prestigious but not top flagship state university). One of the professors is developing a MOOC (not in my discipline). Ze was complaining about the pressure ze felt to launch the MOOC with a very tight deadline. The pressure, though, came from the university administrators and not (at least directly) from Coursera.

19 02 2013
best technology blog

Such a great post. It’s very clear and informative. Keep it up and thanks.

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