Monday, March 17, 2014

Comedians Show Us Why MOOCs are Doomed

I just finished Furious Cool, a book that argues that Richard Pryor was a genius. Before I read the book I knew he was funny, and a brilliant performer, but a genius? The guy from Superman III and Brewster's Millions?

But he was a genius, and the book shows how, as well as a book can for demonstrating the genius of a live art like stand-up. (Surprisingly well because stand-up is about words.) The fact that Pryor's work didn't translate to Hollywood is a general rule. The best stand-up comedians have always had a hard time transitioning to TV and movie screens, and this is true for this century's comedians as well.

The Procrustean box of the screen doesn't just cut off the top, bottom, and sides of the comedian's act. It is a Procrustean cube that erects an impenetrable 4th wall between the performer and audience, severing the ties and feedback loops between the two. Because TV is sanitized, you know that it's not true that anything can happen, and the best comics like Pryor and the others mentioned in that article thrive on that unpredictability and connection to the audience. The best comedy is a relationship, even if the direct manifestation of that relationship is the duration of the laughs and the occasional heckler. The audience is always in on the joke.

TV desperately tries to compensate for this disconnect with laugh tracks and live stunts like Carrie Underwood's Sound of Music -- viewers tuned in not for the perfection, but for the imperfection of a stumble or stutter. Audience voting in something like American Idol also attempts to break down the wall of the Procrustean cube, but the more successful the show, the more the 4th wall slams shut against any illusion that you have an actual say in what happens next.

The most successful TV compensates for the impenetrable 4th wall not through comedy but through drama. A long story arc can show a character developing (like Breaking Bad or George Clooney back when ER was good). Even more, it can set up long philosophical mysteries like those on LOST, even if delivering on those mysteries is a debatable point (which I have debated earlier on this blog, I'm mostly in the pro-LOST camp). The audience participates when it empathizes with the growth of the characters, and chatters about what might happen on next week's episode. This is what an episodic form of spectacle like TV can do.

And this is why MOOCs are doomed if they intend to become anything but supplemental, vocational education.

Teaching is like stand-up. Even on a day when the lecturer is lecturing non-stop, there is still student participation and feedback. I even get a laugh once in while, and I can tell you that the best jokes are not the ones that are deliberately funny, but the personal ones or the ones that personalize something else (like giving emotions to a protein). This is what Richard Pryor did so well, and why no one could steal his jokes. He wasn't about jokes, he was about observing and inhabiting everything else around him. A teaching professor should do that, too, but focused on a single subject and bringing centuries of knowledge together to intensely dissect that subject and challenge the students to a new level.

So taking a teacher and putting her in a screen for a MOOC is like throwing a script at Richard Pryor and expecting him to rekindle his stand-up magic on a screen. It can happen, but it takes more than a camera and a routine and a genius. It takes specific work to make the MOOC work for that medium, and even then, I'm convineced that real learning, like real laughter, requires a real connection that cannot be replicated through a screen. Online comments are different from conversation. Even multiple choice testing is different in person.

 I think MOOCs are very useful for topics where the student has a direct interest in making money from the information given, or for direct low-level instruction that can be reduced to the resolution of a video screen. I hope to use them myself to expand my knowledge in a few fields. But lasting upper-division education is about the person and about the relationship, just like stand-up is about the whole environment and music is about the performance. MOOCs have their place but they can never supplant the Biochemistry class.

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