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The life of an online professor

A screenshot of Professor Kevin Werbach teaching his first online course in gamification.

Some of the nation's most elite professors are taking up a new teaching fad: Massively Open Online Courses. MOOCs rhymes with nukes, and the reach is about the same. These classes streamed on the Internet have millions of students around the world enrolling. They're free of charge. But when you add up all the work it takes on and off camera to make a MOOC, the cost to professors is pretty high. As Prof. Kevin Werbach can attest, the life of a MOOCs rockstar is not pure glitz.

Intro to gamification

Werbach teaches at Penn’s Wharton School of Business. He was a lead advisor on President Barack Obama's transition team. And despite his impressive Ivy League pedigree, he shows up to Day 1 of his online course as an avatar -- a little monster with big elephant-like feet and a tent on his back.

“Now don't worry,” Werbach assures viewers, “I'm not actually going to teach the class from inside a video game. But I am going to show you how some of the techniques that designers use in games like this one can be applied to problems in business, education, health and other fields.”

After providing this simple definition of the course’s core concept “gamification,” the little monster flies away and the real Prof. Werbach reappears in a cozy office with a walnut bookcase. He's professorial in his starched white shirt, and quite good-looking.

Virtual class is hard work

More than 140,000 students have enrolled in Werbach’s online gamification class. That’s rock-star status in the MOOC world. But it took more than just a webcam and an Internet connection to get him there.

Over half of MOOCs professors polled in a recent survey report that the online class has diverted time away from traditional teaching and faculty work.

Werbach has spent hundreds of hours turning his semester-long course into a simple six-week mini-series on Coursera, the online education start-up. He says, “it’s as time-consuming as writing a book.”

He’s replaced hour-long lectures with six- and 10-minute videos. Students have the option of pressing a fast-forward button, to get through the shrink-wrapped lectures even faster. So Werbach throws in an exercise every few minutes, to ensure viewers are paying attention.

By teaching so many at one time, MOOCs risk turning thousands of students into a faceless aggregate. Werbach tries to disaggregate them, using social media. On Twitter he responds to student gripes about grades and homework. In lieu of traditional office hours, he invites students from around the world into Google Hangout. The first session included top students from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Poland, Romania and Spain.

“I hear from them all the time,” Werbach says. “I’m having more conversations with students than I’ve ever had in a course.”

The real-world payoffs

I met up with the non-virtual Werbach at a Gamification conference in San Francisco, where he delivered a keynote address about his MOOC to a packed house.

The professor who is always sitting down in virtual class is a towering 6'4" tall.  Comfortable in front of a webcam and an audience, you can see why he’s become a go-to guy for colleagues nervous about MOOCs: "They're worried that they're going to let slip something that's going to offend someone. If it's just in the classroom with ten students, it's nothing. But if it's online, it'll ruin their careers. The reality is that rarely happens."

Werbach says MOOCs are great advertising, and not just for him.  He has more students online than Wharton has living alumni. According to the Babson Survey Research Group, about a third of students in American colleges and universities have taken at least one online course.

Werbach is willing to bet, the MOOC will create brand new customer-bases for the education industry. About three-quarters of his students report they are not in school.

"They're people, typically professionals, who are taking this for what we would call lifelong learning,” Werbach says. “So if that ratio is right, there's what, half a billion people who would be motivated even at this early stage in taking one of these courses."

Werbach says there’s a payoff for offline teaching too. The MOOC has taught him to make classes more interactive, and rethink test design. A professor may not give too much weight to a couple of students complaining about an exam question. But when two percent of 140,000 complain, they’re louder. Werbach ended up revising one question when “enough [students] noted the problems on the discussion board to attract our attention.”

The Ivy League brand

Deirdre Woods directs the Open Learning Initiative at Penn. Woods says schools need to get in the game because MOOCs are part of the future.

"You're rowing in the river and you're learning about what's going on,” Woods says, “ or you're just standing on the banks watching the boat go by."

Woods admits the business model is shaky right now. Coursera just began charging around $50 for a certificate of completion, for MOOC students who want to document their online coursework.

That certificate does not grant university credit. People who ace Werbach's class are Penn fans, not Penn graduates.  "These courses are not Penn courses yet. They're intentionally not Penn courses because of the experimental nature of them."

While the professor and university take on extra work for a tiny honorarium, Woods says there's little downside. If not every professor turns out to be a Kevin Werbach, that’s okay. While a MOOC does take more than an internet connection and a webcam, it’s a small price to pay for Internet celebrity.

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