Is It a Bird? Is It a Plane? No, It’s SUPERPROFESSOR!!!

Image: Axel Antas-Bergkvist

Thursday 26th May, 2016

Jonathan Rees

In the second article of our special section on Superstar Professors, Jonathan Rees reflects on the relationship between Massive Open Online Courses and the rise of the academic celebrity. 

I first saw the word “superprofessor” in an article at some conservative website.  I lost track of the link a long time ago, but I know it was from one of those online-classes-will-destroy-higher education-as-it-exists-now-forever articles that were so common during what the New York Times famously called “The Year of the MOOC.” Superprofessors were the people in front of the camera of those then-new Massive Open Online Courses, and MOOCs were going to make “star faculty” famous if they weren’t actually famous already. 

What I liked most about the word superprofessor was just how flexible it could be. Sure, anti-intellectual conservatives meant it as a term of respect (if only to highlight how ordinary the rest of us faculty happened to be), but it was so easy to use ironically. Just thinking about any professor flying through the air fighting crime (or anything else for that matter) still gives me the giggles. So I used the term in a lot at my blog, More or Less Bunk, where I wrote often about the problems with MOOCs in general and the problem of superprofessors in particular.

Most of my gripes with superprofessors revolved around the class differences that MOOCs created between different strata of faculty. How could mere mortals compete against the best teachers at the best universities piped into living rooms around the world, teaching MOOCs that covered all the subjects that people everywhere craved to learn? But what happens to the professors who get left behind? As online classes got scaled up, the thinking went, and MOOCs get scaled down, all the rest of us would be left as ministers without portfolios. Unfortunately, faculty don’t have any real autonomy if nobody will pay them to teach anything to anybody. And even if we did, our autonomy won’t prevent us from starving.

Yet MOOCs don’t necessarily have to send existing faculty to the unemployment line in order to change the way most of us do our jobs.  As I explained in a post from 2013:

[B]y agreeing to go down this path, [a super professor has] to invite a twenty person team to make your course with you. What do they know about teaching? It doesn’t matter. They know everything they need to know about breaking your course down into little bits so that those bits can be measured and eventually commodified. Perhaps you bargained yourself a good contract and stand to make a pretty penny when students take your MOOC instead of the existing survey courses at someone else’s university. You’ll never meet the professors that your MOOC replaces. Besides, you’ll be in the rentier class so you won’t care.

This is known as “unbundling” in today’s corporate education jargon – breaking a course down into tiny pieces so that it can be delivered more efficiently, even as the superprofessor at their elite university continues to teach the way that it’s always been done there. In this manner, existing professors could easily become glorified TAs, teaching other people’s content. 

The Princeton Sociologist Mitchell Duneier validated this argument when he suspended his Coursera MOOC in 2013. He did so because Coursera asked him about licensing parts of his MOOC to other schools so that they could use his course content in a blended classroom format.  "I've said no, because I think that it's an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities," Duneier told the Chronicle of Higher Education. Those cost savings would presumably come by replacing well-paid tenured or tenure-track sociologists, with lesser-paid adjuncts. Indeed, if a school licensed enough of Duneier’s MOOC, there would be no reason to hire a sociologist at all. They could replaced with a person trained simply to run the platform where the MOOC resides.

Despite this chilling possibility, I’ve actually developed some sympathy for superprofessors since that time. Much of that sympathy derives from Christopher Newfield’s work on MOOC intellectual property issues. In 2013, he discovered that most super professors working for MOOC giant Coursera received between $10,000 and $20,000 for their efforts. While that’s a lot of money to most faculty, much of that sum got invested back in the course. Unfortunately for any budding faculty entrepreneurs who wanted to get rich during the MOOC rush, the professors Coursera employed to make their MOOCs don’t seem to have copyright of the content they created either. In short, teaching 30,000 people at a time may be good for your ego, but it doesn’t necessarily help you pay your bills.

Since those heady days of 2012, I’ve managed to communicate with a number of people who have fronted MOOCs in a variety of disciplines. Some of these superprofessors went into it with noblest of expectations. Many of them have been pleasantly shocked by the enthusiasm of the students that they’ve encountered. Two of them told me that students had sent them flowers. Another common superprofessor story is about how their MOOC helped them discover some heretofore unknown genius who never would have been exposed to math or history or modern poetry if they hadn’t decided to offer their particular Massive Open Online Course.

This line of argument is easy to counter with cost-benefit analysis since a MOOC can require several hundred thousand dollars to produce and administer. You can also use basic math by comparing the number of people who complete (let alone pass) most MOOCs – which is about 15% – to the much greater number who never even get past the first video-taped lecture. But I’ve learned to stop trying to make those arguments with professors who’ve discovered fame through a career that doesn’t make that many people famous. They really do mean well, but more importantly, they won’t listen. Like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, they’re ready for their close up, and nobody is going to be able to convince them otherwise. 

Luckily, college faculty – even the most elite among us – tend to be a rather empathetic lot. If you try to explain to them the effects that MOOCs could have on campuses not quite as elite as their own, they’ll at least listen to what you have to say. I haven’t met a single superprofessor who thinks that once they cast their MOOC upon the waters that they are absolved of all responsibility of how it gets used. While I know of nobody else who has done what Mitchell Duneier has done and suspended their MOOCs, nobody seems to want a starring role in any kind of video-induced unemployment.

What’s even more effective than to argue about the effect of MOOCs on other faculty is to suggest the effect on students who might find a sociology MOOC to be their only enrollment option in that discipline. After all, every faculty member with any teaching experience understands the benefits of students having a living breathing human being right there in the room to direct the class and to answer questions about the subject matter as they arise. Delivering content by Internet video, on the other hand, is not a decision based on good pedagogy. It’s a decision based on good politics during an age of austerity. That may explain why MOOCs have done much better in a corporate setting since they arrived on the scene than they have inside actual universities.

That last fact explains why people like me can proclaim that the MOOC Revolution is over while a web site called Class Central can simultaneously claim that MOOCs had a great 2015. MOOCs may be growing, but they aren’t displacing traditional university classes – at least not yet. I certainly don’t begrudge any faculty member who somehow manages to find fame or happiness teaching students who might not otherwise learn whatever knowledge they have to impart, but everyone interested in being a superprofessor really should understand the impact of their decisions on the rest of their profession.  In other words, the question is not “To MOOC or not to MOOC?” the question should be “How exactly is my MOOC going to be used?” If faculty who teach MOOCs really are superprofessors, they should probably be wary of corporate lawyers carrying Kryptonite in their briefcases. Hopefully, they’ll continue to not blow the rest of us up in the interim.

Here's more you may be interested in: