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Personal TrainerEvery year at New Year celebrations, many people make or renew their New Year resolutions, typically focused on getting in better shape, losing weight, improving their mind, or becoming more focused.

A couple of years ago, my wife gave me a Christmas gift that was 10 sessions with a personal trainer, thereby making a resolution on my behalf. Apparently she decided that I needed to get into better shape so that the other Deans wouldn’t kick sand in my face at the monthly Council of Academic Deans meeting.

By chance, the certificates were to train with Dr. Steve Shaffer, who at that time was a faculty member in the computer science department, and a part-time trainer. I enjoyed my training sessions with Steve because we spent at least half the time talking about artificial intelligence, programming, software engineering, and bad movies. Steve subsequently gave up his part-time training activities (probably due to me being such a bad student), and later joined IST as a senior instructor. The reason that I mention this training is because it has implications for the emerging role of faculty as teachers and intellectual “coaches.”

In recent months, the concept of Massive Online Open Source (MOOCs) has been prevalent in the news and in academic circles. MOOCs involve the concept of offering a free course online and having thousands of people take the course.

A prime example is the course in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Databases, and Machine Learning, introduced by Stanford in the fall of 2011. In its first offering, the course was taken by over 135,000 participants. Since then a number of universities have sought to develop and participate in the MOOC phenomena via projects such as Coursera, Udacity, edX and other means.

Penn State is exploring the concept of MOOCs (via our new research Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL)) and will join Coursera as a delivery mechanism. IST in particular is exploring the concept of “mini-MOOCs” to develop service courses such as “Self-defense in Cyberspace,” “Introduction to Programming,” and other courses that would provide service to high school students and to our undergraduates.

There are numerous unresolved questions about MOOCs including: the business model (if the course is free, how does anyone get paid to develop and present the course), evaluation of participants (how do you know that the person who signed up for the course is actually taking it, and how much have they learned), and especially, what are the implications of MOOCs for faculty members and traditional colleges and universities.  Some faculty and administrators fear that virtually every course can be taught by an academic “rock star” and provided for free, thereby obviating the need for traditional faculty members and instructors.

I suggest that the personal trainer concept may have implications here. Just because anyone can buy training videos (e.g., P90X –“transform your body on only 90 days for $ 19.95 plus shipping and handling”) doesn’t mean that there will no longer be a role of personal trainers. Personal trainers provide motivation, personal evaluation of progress, and individual attention. Just like a good yoga instructor will monitor individuals in a class and make personal adjustments for form, a good instructor can assume the roles of mentor, personal instructor, motivator, and provide individualized guidance to students.

I don’t fear the advent of MOOCs. Instead, I believe this will be an opportunity to expand and enrich the role of faculty as instructors and teachers. As more information becomes available online (whether it is available as a MOOC, on-line tutorials such as those available by Kahn Academy, etc.), IST faculty will be able to spend more time and effort on individualized instruction, guidance, and tailoring materials to address timely issues.

Thus, while I haven’t ordered P90X, I still make use of a personal trainer to improve my workouts. I do miss my sessions with Steve.

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One thought on “MOOCs and Personal Trainers

  1. Pingback: MOOCs (I did it again) | Hall Pass

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