Feature of the Week

July 21, 2013 11:30 pm

Lights, camera, action ... an academic star is born

Musician Lady Gaga performs onstage at the iHeartRadio Music Festival held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on September 24, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.©Getty

Star quality: Lady Gaga

Aswath Damodaran, professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, says he want to be the “Lady Gaga of finance”.

It is not as crazy as it sounds. About a decade ago he began taping his lectures using a camera on a tripod at the back of the classroom and posting them to his blog. The video quality was abysmal, the audio patchy and the segments painful to download. “Now the technology is much better,” he says.

Last semester, about 30,000 students tuned in to his Massive open online course (Mooc) on Apple’s iTunes U and about 20,000 more watched it on YouTube and other online venues. Prof Damodaran has an impressive 20,000 followers on Twitter. (The average Twitter user has 208 followers, according
to Beevolve, the social media monitoring group.) He has also inspired a tribute video to a Justin Bieber pop song that has been viewed about 15,000 times on YouTube.

Moocs, which are free and available to anyone with an internet connection, are lauded by reformers for their potential to transform higher education by delivering high-quality, university-level classes to millions of eager students around the world who otherwise would not have access. But Moocs and other online business courses hold out another possibility as well: to make internet celebrities out of otherwise unassuming academics.

“Fundamentally as teachers, we like an audience and we like to perform,” says Prof Damodaran. “My primary mission is to reach as many people as I can and technology allows me to expand my classroom.”

Business courses are some of the most sought-after on online learning platforms. Coursera, the web-based system created by two Stanford computer scientists, offers 33 Moocs on subjects from game theory to the principles of macroeconomics. Its most popular business courses attract more than 200,000 people. Meanwhile, edX, the education platform founded by Harvard and MIT, offers five Moocs on business and management.

Tips for online lectures

In the world of online learning, lectures must be short and to the point

Business-oriented Moocs offer an efficient and inexpensive way to receive new training, brush up on skills or be exposed to new ideas, says Jeffrey Katzman, chief learning officer at Xyleme, which sells education tools to for-profit and traditional universities.

“If there is any group of users that are particularly receptive to [Moocs], it would be business users because their access to technology is greater and the technology is much more integrated into their work and their lives,” he says. “[Moocs] offer high-quality information that people are hungry for.”

Business professors who teach online courses are ripe for adulation because they offer a lifeline to those either obsessed with the topic or intimidated by it.

“I want to convince people things are not as complex ... as the so-called experts make it out to be,” says Prof Damodaran. “We’ve made corporate finance far too complex.”

What makes for a great teacher on the internet? Professors who are effective in person are often effective online too. But because Moocs are essentially canned, computerised lectures that offer zero live interaction between student and teacher, showmanship is key, says Mr Katzman.

“A good lecturer who is captivating, photogenic and entertaining goes a long way [online]. And the standout professors are the ones who use technology in new and novel ways.”

“The nice thing about the classroom is that you have a captive audience. Online is a constant call for their attention. You have to be punchier.”

Kevin Werbach, professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton, who has twice taught a Mooc on gamification, says that pausing periodically and asking questions are the “little subtle things that create more dynamism” in his courses. Sometimes he lectures to the camera, at other times he provides a voiceover to a slide or video.

“When I’m doing a lecture [in class] there are digressions, or a student will ask a question – there is some interactivity. In a Mooc, I’m talking the whole time so I need to optimise that time.”

Prof Werbach’s Moocs have had a total enrolment of 147,000 students. With nearly 18,000 followers on Twitter, he too is internet royalty for the MBA-minded set. While modest about his fan base, he thinks “relentlessly about how to make every chunk [of his Mooc] as engaging as possible”.

Many Moocs now have a staff of 10 people responsible for filming, editing and raising the level of the finished product to near-Hollywood quality.

However, some of the most popular business Moocs are a little rougher around the edges.

Gautam Kaul, professor of finance at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, teaches an introduction to finance Mooc. Last year more than 130,000 students took it; there are currently 75,000 enrolled.

. . .

Prof Kaul decided against making dramatic changes to what he describes as his “lunatic in the classroom” approach.

In his Mooc videos, he is always standing and often moving. He cracks jokes. If he drops his pen while making an emphatic point during filming, he does not edit it out. “I have a script and I am prepared, but I like the learning to be chaotic; it’s my personality,” he says.

“I feel like I’ve been given this opportunity to showcase finance. My goal is to make people fall in love with it.”

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