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MOOC Class on the Civil War, Taught by Daniel Day-Lewis

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Well, this is the natural progression of MOOCs and college courses as profitable entertainment:

Free online courses do big numbers these days. 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.

“From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX, who was until recently a computer-science professor at MIT. “So just imagine, maybe we get Matt Damon to teach Thévenin’s theorem,” he added, referring to a concept that Agarwal covers in a MOOC he teaches on circuits and electronics. “I think students would enjoy that more than taking it from Agarwal.”

Casting Damon in a MOOC is just an idea, for now: In meetings, officials have proposed trying one run of a course with someone like Damon, to see how it goes. But even to consider swapping in a star actor for a professor reveals how much these free online courses are becoming major media productions—ones that may radically change the traditional role of professors.

Now of course a free course that anyone can sign up for, whatever. The quality of education isn’t going to be very good anyway, in no small part because actually evaluating students is impossible. And if the goal here is to offer history courses to a broad general public of people sitting around and wanting to learn something, who cares. It’s not going to be any worse than the non-existent educational content of the History Channel. The problem is that these MOOCs want to replace traditional university education and hiring an actor to lecture off cue-cards to 75,000 people pretty much sums up how these so-called education reformers view higher education. Not only is there a complete lack of understanding about what professors actually do, there’s really no interest in actually educating people. The interest is in centering profits in the hands of the 1%, both the capitalists who run the companies and the high administrators of universities who pad their salaries and boost their careers by supposedly cutting costs on wasteful things like teaching.

In other news, Slate is impossible to parody.

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