Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Should good-looking actors deliver online courses?

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. ...

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. ...

In fact, [Russell Poulin, a researcher with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education,] 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.
--Jeff Young, Slate, on division of labor in online courses

We take a large sample of student instructional ratings for a group of university teachers and acquire six independent measures of their beauty, and a number of other descriptors of them and their classes. Instructors who are viewed as better looking receive higher instructional ratings, with the impact of a move from the 10th to the 90th percentile of beauty being substantial. This impact exists within university departments and even within particular courses, and is larger for male than for female instructors. Disentangling whether this outcome represents productivity or discrimination is, as with the issue generally, probably impossible.
--Daniel Hamermesh and Amy Parker, "Beauty in the Classroom: Instructors' Pulchritude and Putative Pedagogical Productivity," on what will sell in online education

Who do you want to see teaching you psychology in your browser?
Susan Syncerski, lecturer, San Jose State University
Gregory Feist, associate professor, San Jose State University
Lauren Castellano, course developer, Udacity