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Meet Your New Instructor: Matt Damon


Watching academic lectures is rarely much fun. But what if the lectures were delivered by Matt Damon? As odd as it may seem, a number of MOOC providers are asking this question, given that the format allows anyone to deliver the lectures professors prepare. Slate reports:

One for-profit MOOC producer, Udacity, already brings in camera-friendly staff members to appear with professors in lecture videos. One example is an introduction to psychology course developed earlier this year in partnership with San Jose State University. It had three instructors: Gregory J. Feist, an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University, who has been teaching for more than 25 years and who wrote a popular textbook on the subject; Susan Snycerski, a lecturer at the university who has taught for 15 years; and Lauren Castellano, a Udacity employee who recently finished a master’s in psychology from the university, advised by Feist.

In the course’s opening lecture, the three stand together and go over the ground rules, but after that, Castellano takes the lead on camera. Feist and Snycerski make regular appearances throughout the 16 lessons, but often only briefly, to explain a concept or two, or to be part of a demonstration or skit with Castellano….

“All our instructors are knowledgeable in the subject area,” Thrun added. “However, we often rely on teams of people to produce a MOOC, and often the individuals who show up on tape are not the primary instructor who composes the materials. This really depends on how camera-shy an instructor is, and how well we believe an instructor is able to do a great job in front of a camera.”

As one researcher notes, once the classroom aspects of teaching have been separated from the lecture itself, the person who writes the lecture content doesn’t necessarily need to be the one delivering it. Many professors may be brilliant minds but middling or unconvincing speakers, and many charismatic speakers lack the background in particle physics to prepare a college-level lecture on the subject.

This suggests that one of the main impacts of MOOCs will be increased specialization in the higher-ed world. Rather than one professor and a couple TAs overseeing a class, various specialists can perform individual tasks: one person does the research and plans the lecture, another delivers the lecture, another grades homework and tests, and yet another provides in-person training to supplement the lectures at various learning centers throughout the country. It’s easy to see why professors wouldn’t be happy about this shift, but greater specialization could create a better product for most students, which, ultimately, is more important.


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  • JeffWeimer

    I think Matt Damon will only want to do a course on “A People’s History.”

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  • Happycrow

    Speaking as a former professor, my response to the disgruntled would be “deal with it.” You need expertise to answer questions which come from a lecture. All you need to deliver a lecture is good presentation skills and an ability to connect with your audience — two skills that many of my former peers blatantly lacked. Any lecturer worth his salt keeps his audience so engrossed that they forget they’re actually learning things until you see them spontaneously yakking about it with their fellow students after class.

  • Fat_Man

    WRM: I agree with you, but I would like to push the point further. A mere lecture is is a linear text. Just adding slides with bullet points does not help much (although it does relieve compulsive note takers). Having a capable actor read the lecture helps a little.

    The video dimension needs to be more fully exploited to maximize the MOOC as a learning tool. Examples are around. Here is one from Cal Tech, and it is more than 20 years old:

    “The Mechanical Universe…and Beyond” is a of 52 thirty-minute videotape programs covering the basic topics of an introductory university physics course. The series was originally produced as a broadcast telecourse by the California Institute of Technology and Intelecom, Inc. with program funding from the Annenberg/CPB Project.

    Each program in the series opens and closes with Caltech Professor David Goodstein providing philosophical, historical and often humorous insight into the subject at hand while lecturing to his freshman physics class. The Mechanical Universe contains hundreds of computer animation segments, created by Dr. James F. Blinn, as the primary tool of instruction. Dynamic location footage and historical re-creations are also used to stress the fact that science is a human endeavor.

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