I recently listened to Jane Maas's Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the '60s and Beyond. One of the entertaining stories she tells (and they're all good) is about what happened when the people who invented Shake 'n Bake in the 1960s tried to introduce another product. (Apologies to Ms. Maas if I get the details wrong here.)
Shake 'n' Bake was wildly popular. What's not to love about seasoned crumbs that you can put in a bag, shake up with chicken, bake, and eat? It was not pretending to be fried chicken, but it was easy (and in the 1960s, cooking for most families was all about easy) and kids would eat it.
In other words, it was what it was: easy to fix and tasty. The results could be replicated in any kitchen. It was a hit.
But then someone thought, "Hey, why don't we make a product with batter so that it can be like real fried chicken? Wouldn't that be even better?" They tested this extensively, selling packets that would become batter if you added water, and debuting the finished product in focus groups. It tasted great, so they went ahead.
Then they rolled it out into test markets, where it sank like a stone. Why? The focus kitchen product tasted great. People liked it. Why wouldn't housewives buy it?
Turns out there were several reasons. First of all, who wants to knead raw chicken in a bag of goopy batter and watch said batter slide off the chicken parts? Second, if you didn't fry it in the right temperature of oil, it was a soggy mess. Third, it had an unfortunate tendency--well known to any of you who've added wet anything to hot oil--to whoosh into a fireball. The fireball thing kind of put the kibosh on the product, which was quietly deep-sixed.
In other words, only under the exact right conditions could this superior product be created. It could not be repeated en masse or by just anyone. It was a failure.
I think there's a lesson here. There was hype, and enthusiasm, and a limited report of success that depended on a lot of conditions that couldn't be replicated in ordinary circumstances. If MOOCs are Shake 'n' Bake--and that can be good, and MOOCs can be good, for particular purposes--why are others trying to make them be fried chicken, when that requires more expertise and special preparation?
I thought of this when reading WaPo (h/t, as seemingly always, to Jonathan Rees) with this line from Eric S. Lander: "But MOOCs such as his might offer some professors elsewhere a chance to spend less time preparing and delivering lectures and more time working hands-on with students."
My question for the day: would the MOOC superprofessors be willing to reverse the roles? Would Eric S. Lander be willing to spend all HIS time "working hands-on with students" after having having the creative portion of his class outsourced to a MOOC? What if he's doing the tutoring instead of the lecturing? What if he has to spend time listening to someone else's lecture and referring to it when he goes into class to work with students?
If there's a true commitment to MOOC principles, shouldn't there be turnabout in who's driving and who's riding shotgun?