The New Rock-Star Professor

Should celebrities teach online classes?

Matt Damon
Casting Matt Damon in a MOOC is just an idea, for now.

Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters

A portion of this article was adapted from Jeff Young’s e-book, Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption.

Free online courses do big numbers these days. So-called MOOCs, or massive open online courses, typically get tens of thousands of sign-ups to watch video lectures delivered by tweedy academics, some more photogenic than others. But imagine how many students would tune in—or make it through the class without dropping out—if instead of bookish professors, Hollywood stars delivered the lessons.

That’s one idea under consideration by leaders of EdX, the nonprofit provider of MOOCs started by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“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.

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.

Does it bother the more-experienced professors that they get less screen time than their younger colleague? “That’s a Udacity decision,” said Feist. “They’ve discovered that it works well if you have these younger people doing most of the instruction, but in fact the content is coming from professors. They wanted someone who students can identify with.”

The professors say they typically develop the lessons and then send them to the Udacity employee to turn the lectures into scripts, complete with demonstrations and suggested jokes. For the lesson on sensation and perception, for instance, Castellano came up with the idea of staging a “sense Olympics.” She and another Udacity employee pretended to be news anchors giving updates from contests that demonstrated human senses. The scenes are playful, and the professors even filmed mock advertisements for products related to the lessons, as a way to add variety to what could otherwise have been a series of talking heads lecturing to the camera.        

Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s founder, said that he models the approach on the way popular television shows are made. “It’s similar to a newscast these days— they have a dialogue,” he said.

“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.”

One place Matt Damon will apparently never get a job teaching a MOOC is Coursera, the largest provider of free online courses. “We believe that education is not a performance but fundamentally is about human interaction,” said Daphne Koller, the company’s co-founder, in an email interview. “We are told by many of our students that they feel a real connection to their MOOC instructors, even when they only see them on video, a connection that is further reinforced when there is some interaction in the forum.” She argued that this connection would diminish if they asked actors to read scripts about content they didn’t deeply understand.

The idea of an actor-professor may at first sound like something out of the Onion or maybe The Simpsons. In fact, one Simpsons episode mocked a school of the future where students crammed in triple-decker desks watch a video of a lecture on basic mathematics delivered by a washed-up actor.

However, 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 in a MOOC. He thinks Damon could shine as a video teacher. “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.

Would Matt Damon take the job, if somehow EdX could afford him? It’s worth noting that the actor, who dropped out of Harvard, has worked on documentaries, which are about the closest thing to MOOCs in today’s media ecosystem—and education has been an area of interest for him. In 2011, Damon narrated American Teacher, a film about school reform. That film, though, argues that we need to protect, rather than replace, traditional teachers.

A portion of this article was adapted from Jeff Young’s e-book, Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption.