Who are the rockstar professors of massive open online courses?

Much has been written about how massive open online courses (MOOCs) have given rise to a cast of so-called “rockstar professors.”

rockstarWhile rockstar professors aren’t actually a new concept, their star power has always been more-or-less confined to the campus where they teach — unless, of course, they get their own TV show, like this guy –>.

MOOCs, however, have given these other charismatic professors a global stage in which to teach and — for better or worse — to entertain.

Writing for the New York Times last year, A.J. Jacobs wrote that the discussion boards about those professors’ courses often read like a One Direction fan site, with students talking about a professor’s smile, voice, and clothing.

“The pop star analogy is not trivial,” Jacobs said. “While MOOCs are a great equalizer when it comes to students around the world, they are a great unequalizer when it comes to teachers. MOOCs are creating a breed of A-list celebrity professors who have lopsided sway over the landscape of ideas.”

Not everyone is so wary of the distinction, however.

At a panel discussion last year, when Anant Agarwal was asked about the hype surrounding MOOCs, he came out fully in favor of the rockstar atmosphere surrounding some of the professors.

“Absolutely, there’s been too much hype — and what a good idea!” Agarwal said. “If you and your colleagues have to hype something, what better to hype than education? For the first time, you’re going to make the teacher a rockstar.”

So some people are wary of the idea, and some are excited about professors’ new-found global superprofessor status. But just who are these educational celebrities, anyway?

Read on to meet five rockstar professors.

1. Walter Lewin

With courses like “Newtonian Mechanics” and “Electricity and Magnetism,” Lewin may not seem like an obvious candidate for rockstar professor status.

But the reportedly 4 million students who take the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor‘s MOOCs would probably disagree.

2. Andy Brown

Armed with just a B.S. in physics, Brown takes students all around Europe teaching physics lessons from locations where many of the theories originated. Part Bill Nye the Science Guy, part travel show, Brown’s Intro to Physics MOOC proved an early success story for the new type of online course.

“We think the future of education is guys like Andy Brown who produce the most fun,” one of Udacity’s founders once told the New York Times.

3. Christina Blanch

This superprofessor even taught a “super MOOC.”

Blanch created a course in 2013 that explored questions of gender and sexuality through comic books. She was able to tap some of the biggest names in comics to be guests in the course, including Mark Waid, Brian K. Vaughan, and Kelly Sue DeConnick.

Stan Lee, the legendary co-creator of many of Marvel’s most famous super heroes, even narrated the commercial for Blanch’s course.

(Next page: More rockstar professors)

4. Kevin Werbach

Werbach teaches a MOOC on gamification. He has taught 150,000 students, and been called a “rockstar” and “internet royalty.” But he’s not a fan of the perception, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education that there’s a danger in thinking of professors as rockstars.

“The rockstar meme implies that teaching is all about performance,” he wrote. “What happens on stage is still what matters, even if techno-hip educators supplant traditional sages. Talk of rock-star faculty members reinforces the static lecture model that MOOCs were, ironically, developed in part to destroy. The audience at a rock concert is listening, not interacting.”

5. Zombie survival professors

Thought to be the first MOOC to go truly viral, UC Irvine’s course based on the popular zombie drama The Walking Dead inspired thousands of tweets and more than 600 news articles.

The course was taught by an all-star team of UC Irvine instructors: social science lecturer Joanne Christopherson; physics professor Michael Dennin; public health lecturer Zuzana Bic; and mathematics lecturer Sarah Eichhorn.


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