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For online professors, a celebrity side effect

Wardrobe worries and groupies, too

About 19,000 people registered for an online anthropology course taught by Wellesley College’s Adam Van Arsdale.

SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF

About 19,000 people registered for an online anthropology course taught by Wellesley College’s Adam Van Arsdale.

Before Adam Van Arsdale began taping his anthropology course to show online, he was used to standing in front of perhaps 20 Wellesley College undergrads. Now when he talks about Australopithecus, he has to worry whether the 19,000 people who registered for his Massive Open Online Course — enough to fill TD Garden — think he should have shaved that morning, and what they will tweet.

“It opens you up to a lot of complaining,” the assistant professor said, recalling the support one student enjoyed after he griped on Facebook about the way Van Arsdale phrased a question on natural selection. “Fifty people ‘liked’ that negative posting.”

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Massive open online courses — known as MOOCs — have been around for years, but recently they have taken off. Mostly free, on topics as wide-ranging as “The History of the World from the 1300s’’ to “Warhol’’ to “Diabetes,’’ the online courses are giving the common person access to elite professors. Along the way, they are bringing Hollywood-style concerns — wardrobe, continuity issues, social media buzz— to the halls of academia. With tens of thousands of students or more sometimes registering to watch a single professor, the word “star” is being used to describe people more likely to spend time with The New York Review of Books than a personal masseuse.

“Now I have to worry about what shirt I’m wearing,” said David Cox, an assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard. If he wears a different button-down during the multiple-day process of taping a single segment of the “Fundamentals of Neuroscience,” his shirt appears to “change magically” on camera, he noted.

Because Cox tapes his lectures out in the field, essentially creating 5- to 10-minute NOVA-like episodes, the scientist has started thinking more like a movie director, imagining how to present things in a way that will translate on screen.

“I’m learning that if I show a brain, I have to tilt it at an angle that seems unnatural but looks natural on camera,” he said.

Smitha Radhakrishnan, an assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley, is also worried about camera angles. When she received an e-mail suggesting that June would be a good time to film a promo for her forthcoming MOOC — “Introduction to Global Sociology ” — her first thought was not about sociology, but her large baby bump. “Being on the Internet indefinitely as a pregnant person is very different than teaching in front of 25 students in a class you’ve known for the whole semester and have a relationship with,” Radhakrishnan said. “They understand if you have to sit down because you’re tired.”

Some MOOCs show a professor lecturing in class; the pre-taped talks are edited into segments to be watched later by students online. In others, the teacher delivers the lecture in a studio without an audience. That is an acting challenge, professors say, because it means talking into a camera that is giving no feedback.

“There are always some students who are glassy-eyed, but it’s never 100 percent staring back at you with no response,” said Louis Hyman, an assistant professor of labor relations, law, and history at Cornell University, and the co-teacher of “American Capitalism: A History.”

His MOOC is scheduled to run next spring on EdX, an online education platform launched by MIT and Harvard in 2012. The “weirdest” part of the experience for him, Hyman added, is delivering his talks barefoot because the studio lights make the room so hot. “I never thought I’d be lecturing on the railroad strike of 1877 without shoes on,” he said.

Students can receive a certificate of completion for courses but rarely earn academic credit. About 90 percent of students fail to complete the coursework, according to a widely cited study by a graduate student at the Open University in the UK. But still, sheer numbers who at least look in give professors a taste of what it is like to be a celebrity, if only a minor one.

At Berklee College of Music, Loudon Stearns, an assistant professor of contemporary writing and production who teaches a music production MOOC, was surprised when a groupie appeared during office hours.

“She was starstruck,” he said. “She asked if she could take her picture with me.”

But as a Wellesley College classics professor has found, the camera can be cruel. Guy Rogers has been teaching about Alexander the Great for a quarter of a century, but recently, while editing promotional videos for his forthcoming MOOC, the 59-year-old learned something about himself.

“I am not Brad Pitt,” he said.

Decades into his career, seeing himself on camera has made Rogers rethink his approach in the classroom and even his preferred all-black wardrobe. “I’ve realized it’s important to be as kind to everyone as possible,” he said, “and I’ve started wearing more dress shirts and khakis.”

The lectures-without-borders feature of these online courses is presenting other challenges for professors. Among the 9,000 people who have signed up for Rogers’s class are a number of Alexander the Great experts, some of whom might disagree with his take on the warrior. “It’s a bit scary,” Rogers said, imagining the judgment of fellow experts. “I feel that I’m taking big risks putting my interpretation of a very controversial figure out there for the entire world, and not just 25 Wellesley students.”

Van Arsdale, the Wellesley anthropologist, is also thinking about specific members of his online student body, which in his class include his wife, a Wellesley French professor; his brother, a high school science teacher in Alaska; and his father, a retired Presbyterian minister, who recently revealed his relationship to the professor on Facebook and promptly enjoyed compliments from classmates on his parenting skills.

“Your son is way cool,” a fellow student wrote.

At MIT, a professor is also making MOOC-related changes (albeit not to his wardrobe). As a professor of mechanical engineering, David Gossard likes to use the length of the school’s 12-foot blackboards for the discipline’s many equations. But when the 37-year MIT veteran started recording his MOOC, the cameramen asked him to write on just half the board at a time, the better to get close-ups, and capture all those figures and equations.

“You forget on occasion, and the guys in the video booth are probably swearing,” Gossard said, “but they’re gracious.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.com
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