Empathy: The Big Reason College Professors Should Take A MOOC

A common joke among college teachers is that our students “get younger every year.” This fall we will marvel that our students were born in the year Bill Clinton ran for a second term, Madeleine Albright was appointed the first female secretary of state, the Unabomber was arrested and Dolly the cloned sheep was born.


It’s a form of gallows humor, of course, poking gently at the uncertainty about whether the kids are getting more dissimilar from us or vice versa. We’re the ones who have taken another lap around the sun to find a new generation waiting for us. Every year we have, on the one hand, more experience at connecting with young people and, on the other hand, less common experience upon which to rely.

Connecting With Less Common Ground

But a strong liberal arts foundation teaches nothing if not empathy, right? So we may justifiably feel we have advanced degrees in imagining what life is like for our students. We look across the seminar table and see their boredom, annoyance, confusion or enthusiasm and figure we have a better than average chance of understanding what they are going through.

It’s unlikely, though, that we’ll have a chance to really test the presumption that we know what being a college student is like. The truth is, college teachers like myself are in the odd position of being advocates for a product we no longer buy ourselves. With rare exceptions, the experience we treasure so much is confined to one short period of our lives, and we never again sit facing the blackboard after we earn our degrees.

And not only because we’re like doctors who make lousy patients, either. It’s because college isn’t really set up to serve working adults. Most of us couldn’t find the time to step across the hall and audit a colleague’s course if we wanted to. (Which should tell us something about how truly open we are to working adults who are ready to buy what we’re selling.)

How Can A MOOC Change That?

MOOCs, however, are a game-changer, for a lot of reasons. I won’t hash out all the pros and cons here. (I’m on the pro side.) But whatever the potential faults or limitations of MOOCs, the fact that they are free and open to all makes them, at least, a good place for low-stakes experiments. And that quality makes them extremely valuable to people who otherwise can’t easily get themselves into a student desk, including college teachers.

In short, MOOCs give us access to a simulation of the college student experience. Let me explain how that worked for me recently.

My Own MOOC Experience

I always have one MOOC going, mostly chosen according to my personal interests. But last winter, I landed on a class that uncannily put me on an intellectual and emotional path very similar to that of students in my own classes. I’m an adjunct instructor of first-year composition courses, and the class I took was Introduction to Mathematical Thinking by Professor Keith Devlin at Stanford University.

I choose this class mostly because I’ve been on a jag to fill in the gaps left by my B.A. program 25 years ago. To fulfill the core requirements I usually opted for the “physics for poets” classes typically offered for humanities majors at small liberal arts colleges at the time.

I don’t recall how I was exempted from the math requirement, but I promise it wasn’t because of my previous achievements in that subject. One result of that course of study is that now my own math abilities now resemble those of a first-year college student placed into developmental math.

Which isn’t the subject of Devlin’s course at all. It’s designed to help students transition to the approaches and critical thinking required in college-level mathematics. In other words, it has a lot in common with my first-year composition courses. We’re both primarily helping students leave behind a high-school approach to our subjects. As I do, he heavily emphasized inquiry, the necessity of failure and a focus on process rather than on end results. As I do, he spends very little time on “content” as a recent high school student might see it and more on ways of thinking.

My own path to this math class also paralleled that of many of my students. It should be noted that I’m an adjunct at a state university campus with non-competitive admissions, and Devlin is an esteemed professor at one of the most competitive universities in the world. But in bypassing more appropriate developmental classes with wishful thinking, I had gotten in over my head in the same way many of my students do. Like many of them, I was eager to learn, but unprepared.

I Became My Own Student

Wishful thinking served me well for a couple weeks into the classes until a funny thing happened. I started having emotional responses, of all things. In the evenings while I worked on the MOOC, I was at various times intrigued by the challenge, suspicious of the structure of the course, bemused with the brown nosers in the forums, annoyed that my teacher wouldn’t just tell me what to do, stressed about deadlines, hungry to focus on the work, and elated at my breakthroughs. I was getting it — sometimes. My brain was tired, and I could feel it growing and changing like muscles a few weeks after the start of a new workout regimen.

I was also making dumb mistakes paralleling almost exactly what I scold my students for. I’m often amazed that students who invest so heavily in their education will show up to my writing class without pen and paper. Meanwhile, I was struggling in the third week’s homework, before it dawned on me that sitting and watching the videos wasn’t going to be sufficient and that taking notes might be a good idea. That was a humbling realization.

The most amazing thing to me, however, is how often I saw those parallels only in retrospect. Because while in the thick of the lessons — earnestly desiring both to learn and to do well on assignments — I was privately cussing Devlin in ways that I’m sure my own students cuss me. More than once I groaned at my computer monitor, “Just tell me the answer already.” A day or two later when I had worked through a problem or got passing marks on the assignments, I would congratulate myself and catch a whiff of “I told you so,” in Devlin’s summaries. That’s typically when I smacked my head with recognition.

The class also provided me a vivid experience of the kind of intellectual development I encourage in my students. In first-year composition, we talk a lot about asking good questions and the importance of process over getting the right answers. I try to sell students on the value of not knowing, of exploring and of sometimes failing. I refuse to tell my students how many sources they should have or which paragraph the thesis statement should go in. We’re not painting by numbers here, people. We’re learning how to think for ourselves.

“Yeah, yeah,” I imagine them thinking as they suffer through these lectures. “Just tell me what the homework is for Wednesday.” I want to create the messy conditions for learning, but they usually just want the formula for success.

A similar thing happened in Devlin’s math MOOC. Many students in the discussion forums, myself included, had responses similar to my writing students. I was sometimes frantic for step-by-step instructions on how to approach a math problem. But Devlin steadfastly refused to provide any, because that would defeat the purpose of the assignment and of the class. And, even though he was using almost the same rationales I give when I stand at the head of the class, in the position of a student I was remarkably deaf to this message.

About midterm, however, I started to see my limitations and my agency as a student more clearly, and the parallels with my class became clearer. In my classroom — or, more accurately, in the hallway after class — it seemed to me the tone of vulnerability, insecurity, and confusion in my students’ voices had increased a decibel or two, while the wheedling and reluctance had decreased. The change was on my part, of course. I was hearing them differently.

Which is probably a good thing in my case. My own style on deadlines and minimum expectations on assignments has always been what I like to think of as “tough but fair.” Without being totally unreasonable, I try to insist on students taking responsibility for their own learning. Not getting it is fine, but showing up unprepared to take your best shot isn’t fine. And I probably deafen myself more than the average teacher to factors beyond my control like car trouble or glitches in other parts of campus like the computer lab or the registration office.

Why Learn To Be A Student Again?

But over the last quarter century, in trying to be tough but fair, I may also have numbed myself to the confusion and bewilderment my students were feeling about the work. They were sometimes trying to tell me much the same thing I found myself grumbling through the computer monitor at Devlin — that they weren’t sure what to do and were getting discouraged.

Being in their position, however imperfect a simulation a MOOC may be, reset the levels for me a little bit. I started hearing my students differently. I’m not sure what impact this minor boost of empathy will have on my classroom practices or my course design, but I know I was a little more patient with my students last semester, I think it made me more effective.

Robert McGuire is an adjunct instructor at Southern Connecticut State University and editor of the SkilledUp Thought Leadership Blog.



  1. Susanne Murphy

    September 3, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Good for you.

  2. Jima Ngei

    December 3, 2014 at 11:56 pm

    I agree. Its always a great lesson to wear the other’s shoes and after many years as a professor being a student again can give better perspective. Thank you for sharing this.