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It's not as crazy an idea as it sounds. Jeffrey R. Young, author of Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education's High-Tech Disruption, spoke with several executives at companies that produce massive open online classes (MOOC), which offer thousands of students at a time the chance to learn from professors at top colleges. Or, occasionally, the chance to learn from those professors' more photogenic colleagues.
"All our instructors are knowledgeable in the subject area," Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun tells Young. "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."
It's not a great leap from there to hiring celebs to teach online courses. Udacity competitor EdX has discussed bringing a famous instructor for a trial run. The celebrities involved wouldn't even necessarily know anything about the subject they were teaching.
"From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well," says Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX and former MIT computer-science professor. "So just imagine, maybe we get Matt Damon to teach Thévenin's theorem [a concept involving circuits and electronics]. I think students would enjoy that more than taking it from Agarwal."
Agarwal feels that the professor's role can be "pulled apart" into different roles, with different people doing the tasks that suit their skills. So Matt Damon, for example, could read the lines, while an experienced professor would write the script, and a T.A. grade the assessments.
In this way, the new and improved MOOC would be similar to the usual classroom system, where one person lectures and another person teaches sections, but with one crucial difference: the lecturer might not necessarily understand what he's saying.
The question, of course, is whether students would learn as much from an actor saying lines as the professor who wrote them.
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