What Qualifies Best Teachers?

One of my pet peeves in the MOOC hype is the discussion of best teachers.  Whether it’s Thomas Friedman, Bill Gates, Sal Khan, or the fringes of the political spectrum (left and right), rhetoric regarding xMOOCs explicitly states that the structure will allow many people to take class offerings from the best teachers in the world.  However, no one has offered a rationale on a) what constitutes a best teacher in the world, and b) how they will end up fronting MOOCs such as those offered by Udacity, Coursera and edX.  The rhetoric is as follows:  MOOCs are partnering with prestigious universities, step 2, best teachers in the world.  This fits a dominant ideology of prestigious universities, but perhaps we should challenge such ideology, because when we do the rhetoric looks more like this:


Equating institutional affiliation with ability is not a reliable indicator of success.  Professors at prestigious universities perhaps are the best teachers in the world, or they may be good researchers, or they may be well-known in their field, or they may have a great deal of publishings, or perhaps they once were the best in the world at (teaching, publishing, research, publicity) but their recent scholarship has languished.  To anoint a professor as one of the best teachers in the world because of their institutional affiliation is a superficial, research-bereft method of analysis.  

Quick example:  the San Francisco Giants won the World Series this past October.  The team has a few elite players:  Buster Posey and Matt Cain.  The team has a number of very good players:  Pablo Sandoval, Sergio Romo, Madison Bumgarner.  The team has former great players who still contribute an important role:  Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito.  The team has good players for their position, role players who are not flashy but get the job done:  Hunter Pence, Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan, Ryan Vogelsong, Jeremy Affelt.  The team has players who perform below average as well.  As a unit, they won the World Series.  But if I were drafting a Fantasy Baseball team, I would not take Marco Scutaro with my first pick, my fifth pick, my tenth pick, or even my fifteenth pick, because there are a lot of better players in all of baseball.  Marco Scutaro is not one of the best baseball players in the world, but if we judge best by his affiliation, we ignore all other measures of validity.  Same holds true for judging poor teams:  Giancarlo Stanton is one of the best players in baseball, but he plays for the lowly Miami Marlins; judging him based on affiliation is a great disservice.

I had the privilege of engaging Kevin Werbach, professor at Penn and instructor of a Coursera-aligned course on gamification taught this past summer.  Our conversation started over a tweet Werbach later noted was intended to be provocative:

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 1.55.06 PM


Werbach is a business professor, so it stands to reason that his perspective will incorporate some aspect of pragmatism, and likely support the developer (in this case the xMOOC).  The challenge is thus not on the developer, but on the labor (the professor).  Now, I appreciate that he notes professor in the first part, and teacher in the second, which understates that professors do more than teach.  However, I take issue with several elements of this tweet

1)  The course will soon be available for free.  Technically, the content is available for free right now.  I keep thinking back to Matt Damon’s character Will Hunting in the namesake movie when he tells the Harvard graduate student You blew 150k on an education you could have gotten in $1.50 in late fees from the library.  What makes a traditional course different from self-directed learning is structure, scaffolding, motivation, community, contextualization, narrative, etc.  MOOCs at present build in a structure, and hope a community will form (a quick read of Lave & Wenger will show community cannot be forced), and perhaps some very basic, didactic scaffolding.  Content is still king in the MOOC world, but teaching is about much more than content.

2)  The notion of self-paced learning as panacea is a misnomer.  Distance education has been around for almost 200 years now, yet it has only received mainstream acceptance in the last 20 months.  And this is not the first distance ed dance that prestigious schools like MIT, Stanford and Harvard have held:  OpenCourse, AllLearn, and a whole host of work with radio, TV and correspondence are recent historical examples of .edu’s knowledge of and interest in distance learning.  One* of the reasons for its lack of full acceptance is the difficulty in keeping students motivated across the distance and self-pacing.  Self-pacing is a great way to learn…for those who are intrinsically motivated already.  However, those are the kind of people who do well with $1.50 in late fees at the library.  Education has to accommodate for external motivation, or at least begin the process of helping students find/develop an internal locus of control.

*Another reason is economic:  distance education was a lesser product than face-to-face education, and there was no way to hide that.  Thus, the cost of entry had to be lower, and the cost of distance ed production has only in the last 3-5 years decreased to a point where such a manner is economically advantageous.  

3)  The part about a better teacher.  I took this from the #Coursera perspective, following the dominant narrative, which was not necessarily fair to Werbach.

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 1.56.54 PMThe heavy assumption I made was following the dominant ideology that the professors currently associated with MOOCs are the best teachers in the world.  Perhaps they are, though I have noted in previous posts that their lack of prior reflexivity or understanding of basic educational theory creates doubt.  Throwing Fordist in there was probably a bit much, though much like Werbach was trying to be provocative, so was I, just with a different provocation.

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 1.57.05 PMThe conversation continued, and you can find record of it here.  While we went in different directions and at least came to an understanding of the other’s perspective (Werbach sees MOOCs as happening and we need to try to improve them; I don’t necessarily see MOOCs as a given but certainly want to put educational theory and faculty professionalism into the center of the argument), we did not come close to answering the question of what constitutes a best teacher.  And my fear is such an answer will soon be developed through a quantifiable data set that benefits use of the LMS.



9 thoughts on “What Qualifies Best Teachers?

  1. Pingback: What Qualifies Best Teachers? | Impromptu MOOC | Scoop.it

  2. Ed Nagelhout

    Nicely done. Provocative and well reasoned. Like you, I’m always looking for criteria or definitions for ‘best’ or ‘great.’ Even Sir Ken Robinson falls into this trap. More importantly, from my perspective, is the question, “Do we have to have the ‘best’ or ‘great’ teachers to have great learning?” Can we all be great? Can ‘good’ or even ‘adequate’ teachers create/provide effective learning environments? Personally, I’d rather have an ‘adequate’ student-centered teacher over a ‘great’ teacher-centered teacher. And what role does program play? What role does administration play? Can a great teacher remain so in an unsupportive environment? Can an adequate teacher become a good teacher (or good become great) in a supportive environment? Or is greatness innate? Something that can’t be developed?

    Oh well, enough for now. Thanks for the post.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      I know a lot of the critical pedagogy folks have trouble with Sir Ken because he comes at his recent work from the Daniel Pink/Malcolm Gladwell/Thomas Friedman camp of Sage on the Stage without benefit of references, but I have a soft spot for him and his missive, esp. considering his work in Britain fighting for the Arts during the neoliberal reorganization of education. But all of your questions are great ones, and deserve a lot of time and consideration as to not be flippant. But to answer your last few, I understand that pedagogy as a definition puts teaching into an artistic category (pushing toward the innate), but like other professions, practice and dedication are vital to the success. There is science, organization, and art to teaching, and I think supporting educators as professionals rather than semi-skilled employees can develop fair to good, good to great and great to unforgettable.

      1. Ed Nagelhout

        I’ve been wanting to make one comment on this (and finally found some time). I agree with everything that you say here (including your soft spot for Sir Ken), but I’m always a bit nervous when you say “pedagogy as a definition puts teaching into . . .” Too often, for me, this relies on a somewhat antiquated view of “teaching” that places sole responsibility for the success and failure of learning in the hands of the individual, the “teacher.” You acknowledge this by pointing out the value of support for educators, but, personally, I always want to define pedagogy more broadly, away from the simply personal, more contextually, more as a part of a larger learning environment. Thanks again for a great post, Rolin.

      2. Rolin Moe Post author

        I don’t disagree with you, Ed. Perhaps some of the discord is in the definition of pedagogy, which is general at best and varied at worst. Pedagogy historically deals specifically with teachers; perhaps such a word is improper in a socially constructivist worldview, where we understand knowledge is created, wisdom developed and content too often abstracted from authentic meaning. The teacher is not the sole judge of a student. What the teacher provides however is a variable to help ground and amplify the educational pathway. If the system forgets or does not account for the environment of the learner, the job is much tougher. If he teacher is held solely accountable for the progress of the student in a sterile, homogenized environment of abstract content, that’s a recipe for failure for all players…the student gains are only in the context of classroom performance (and even there are minimal), and the educator takes the blame.

  3. Carranza

    I know that many students rate their professors on ratemyprofessor.com. How about a website dedicated to rating the MOOC’s instructors. Something like ratemyMOOCprofessor.com to help learners define who are the best teachers. I know that qualifying a teacher “as the best” is subjective. The question I have for you is a very simple. Do we focus on quality of instruction or on the quality of the content provided by the MOOC?

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      In a MOOC, how can you differ between the quality of content and the quality of instructor? The learning theory is didactic, behaviorist-cognition. The instructor is a lecturer, not a teacher.

  4. Carolyn Grayson

    Possibly what qualifies teachers as the “best” is simply variety. MOOCs are open for anyone to teach and for any students to engage in. One of the greatest things about distance learning is the fact that it can be done…from a distance (imagine). Meaning students are no longer limited to instructors within the constrains of their geographical location. In addition, teachers may not be limited to “teachers” rather MOOCs can be run by experts within each field of expertise. In summary the “best teachers” may simply be a matter of matching the right students with the right motivator who is an innovator within their subject matter.


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