the temptation of MOOCs

When I was in college, Martin Scorsese's controversial film, The Last Temptation of Christ, premiered.  No theater in Blacksburg screened it, but I did manage to catch it one weekend when I went home.  One very polite lady approached us as we walked up to the box office, offered us some Christian literature, and suggested that perhaps we should skip the film.  Other protests across the country were not so tepid.  A guy who lived across the hall from me told me he was boycotting the film, even though he had not seen it.  All he knew was that it had some scenes in which Jesus has a family (which implies he had sexual intercourse at some point) and that the film was therefore blasphemous.  However, these scenes are hallucinations when Jesus is on the cross, and the final scene shows him rejecting this last temptation to simply be a man.  He jubilantly accepts who he is and embraces his identity.  Frankly, I think the film affirms the Christian faith while addressing the dichotomy of Jesus as human and divine.    

I bring this up because there has been a lot of talk lately about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  Critics worry that MOOCs will be used to justify further cuts to higher education funding and will transform most faculty into glorified teaching assistants.  In the last couple of weeks, the philosophy faculty at San Jose State University published an open letter to Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor whose Justice MOOC was being pushed upon them by the SJSU administration.  The letter is interesting and makes some valid points, many of which I agree with, but as I read it I couldn't help thinking about my experience with The Last Temptation of Christ.  These professors rejected something without even trying it.  I suppose you could say that they should just stand on principle, but I think they are missing a chance to engage in an educational experiment.  They may very well be right that Prof. Sandel's MOOC isn't right for their students, but how do they know?  I propose the following:  Mad MOOC: Beyond Thunderdome.  Two courses enter; one course leaves.  Have half the SJSU students take the MOOC and put the other half into the local course.  Perform the same assessments.  Get some data.  Then decide what the right course of action is.

I haven't made up my mind about MOOCs yet.  I see the potential to use them in interesting, blended ways that could enhance the traditional classroom experience.  I also share my colleagues' concerns about how MOOCs could be misused by politicians looking for cost-saving measures.  I thought I'd investigate myself and try to get some current UF students to join me.  Here's the email I sent them:

In the spirit of intellectual inquiry, I have enrolled in a MOOC this summer and I am writing to invite you to join me.  The course is taught by Professor Robert Ghrist, a mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania.  The course is called Calculus: Single Variable and you may sign up at coursera:  Now, to be fair I’m cheating a bit—after all, I am a professor of mathematics myself so the workload won’t be too demanding for me.  However, I know Prof. Ghrist, and I can assure you that he gives the best lectures I have ever seen.  He is very engaging and funny.  Check out the preview video for the course and you’ll get a feel for his style.
In conjunction with this course, I have created an e-Learning site where we can interact and discuss this on two levels:  the actual mathematics involved, and the meta-analysis of the MOOC experience.  If you would like to join me in this adventure, you should do the following:
1.       Sign up for the course at  It is free.
2.       Send me an email with your gatorlink and I will add you to the e-Learning site.
The course begins May 24, 2013 and runs all summer.  Dr. Ghrist assumes that you have seen calculus before (e.g. Calculus AB in high school) and can do basic things.  You will gain a much deeper conceptual understanding of calculus if you work at this course.
If any current or incoming UF students reading this post would like to participate but did not receive this email, feel free to drop me a line at  I've already had a couple dozen or so students sign up.  I'll report back from time to time to let you know how it's going.