The Irascible ProfessorSM
by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Stack 'em deep, and teach 'em cheap!" ....Anon.
Commentary of the Day - August 29, 2013. We've been SMOCed! (Slightly Revised) Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.
"Just don't call it a MOOC. The university styles the class as the world's first synchronous massive online course, or SMOC (pronounced "smock"), where the professors broadcast their lectures live to the 1,500 [or so] students enrolled.
'I think we were influenced predominantly by this mix of Jon Stewart and The View or Jay Leno,' said James W. Pennebaker, chair of the department of psychology at UT-Austin." [Carl Straumsheim, "Don't Call It a MOOC," Inside Higher Ed, August 27, 2013]
This is indeed heartening news, if only for the change in acronym. "MOOC," with its connotations of a large bovine herd plaintively expressing its discomfort, has always seemed problematic as the name of a program intended to change -- radically -- the higher education system. "SMOC (pronounced smock)" is hardly better, although I do like the suggestion of an artist's garment, a faint echo of the sort of things "education" used to include. And of course Jon Stewart's show is filmed hours ahead of time, not broadcast live. But these are minor issues, compared to the significance of this development.
The next paragraph of the article opens by announcing that "The course is the result of almost a decade of research into how students learn." But let's go back to the preceding paragraph and spend a few moments considering the list of influences for the very first SMOC, "Introduction to Psychology." What can faculty members take from these models? Is it at all significant that the first name in the list -- Stewart -- is the host of a parody news show? Leno is somewhat more understandable; just a few years ago he demonstrated how he'd treat a junior faculty member, by keeping the best classes and time slots for himself. As for The View, I suppose we can take away a few things about team teaching, although it's always better not to shriek when attempting to engage students in learning. And why didn't that near-decade of research uncover the fact that TOSH.0 [Ed. The Tosh Show on Comedy Central] has more viewers than Stewart’s Daily Show. So what else can we take away from those models, should we desire to develop a series of SMOCs?
1. Faculty members teaching SMOCs should talk to administrators about considering re-naming divisions and programs; for example, in terms of evening adult ed classes, a simple move from Night School to The Tonight School should prove quite effective.
2. In terms of personnel, all Tonight and Today School classes will require instructors with local and possibly national followings. Every instructor -- or, as such instructors will be called, host -- must have an assistant, to serve as announcer, sidekick, straight man, etc.
3. All faculty members interested in either position should submit audition tapes.
4. The classes will also require a band, to be called "The Tonight School Band." Band members may come from the ranks of either students or faculty. Student band members may be paid with tuition-remission credits for any course in The Tonight School program listings. Faculty members may list their participation under "Service" on their CVs.
5. It will be helpful when creating syllabi and assignments to be mindful of the fact that what students really want to watch is football, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad.
6. All PowerPoint demonstrations should be limited to lists of no more than 10 items.
7. All lectures and discussions on any single topic should be limited to no more than 10 minutes.
8. All guest lecturers will be referred to simply as "guests."
9. Students will submit all exam answers, writing assignments, and rating polls (formerly known as course evaluations) via live Twitter feed.
10. Study abroad will still be an important component: students will be encouraged to spend time visiting the sets of Conan O’Brian and Jimmy Fallon. It may even be possible to set up an exchange program with Saturday Night Live.
2013, Carolyn Foster Segal
Carolyn Foster Segal is a Professor of English, Emerita at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA. She also is an adjunct at Muhlenberg College.
The Irascible Professor comments: The notion of a SMOC suggests to the IP "edutainment" rather than true education. But to be fair, the psychology professors offering the UT, Austin SMOC have been been able to claim some success through the introduction of digital components to previous versions of this class, and also that students who took the class in an online section did better on average than students who took the large lecture section. However, neither instructor seems to have raised the possibility that a large lecture section of an introductory course section with 500 students has to be the ultimate example of an impersonal teaching experience guaranteed to turn off many students. The professors also note that to offer their SMOC they need a support staff of about 125 people; and, that the work to offer the class is daunting compared to offering a regular class. And they don't mention the catastrophic effects of technological problems that might befall a class that's streamed live on the internet.
The interactive components of the course include discussion groups or "pods" with a small number of students being led not by graduate student TAs, but by undergraduate students who have taken the class previously. I'm sure that helps to keep the cost down, but it also may keep the quality of discussion down.
With an enrollment of 1,500 the course is hardly low-cost given the huge staff required to offer it. Even if the enrollment grows to 10,000, the staffing ratio works out to 1 staff member for each 80 students -- which still is not exactly a panacea for low-cost education. One has to wonder how much better the students might do if they were taught in individual sections of 75 or 80 compared to a 500-student lecture.
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