My department and a MOOC.

The Philosophy Department at San José State University (of which I am a part) took a pass on teaching Michael Sandel's "Justice", a MOOC licensed by the start-up edX, as a "flipped" course (which would have involved students watching videos of Sandel's lectures -- including his Q&A with his Harvard students -- and then coming in to discuss that in a classroom).

We explain our reasons for this decision in an open letter which you can read online at the Chronicle of Higher Education or download as a PDF here. The CHE article about the letter has some comments from the SJSU administration about the situation.

11 responses so far

  • robin reid says:

    I read the letter today--was linked from one of the blogs I follow (a feminist philosophy one, I think)--and immediately sent link to my dean and a colleague. My university (small one in rural texas) is looking at MOOCS, and although I am one of the people most involved in and interested in online and web enhanced teaching, I am rapidly becoming anti-MOOC.

  • Actually, my department has done quite a lot of online and web-enhanced teaching -- we're not against the technology at all!

    We do, however, object to being handed a prepackaged course developed by someone at another institution with no attention to the actual needs of our actual students ank being asked to drive it, rather than (say) drawing on our own expertise and developing our own materials.

    We object to MOOCs envisioned as a money saver, given that our experience has shown engaging students in online courses at a level that delivers college education worthy of the name requires more faculty time and effort and smaller class sizes.

    We also object to the conversion of public funds to private profits that seems inevitable when universities like SJSU pay licensing fees to private entities like edX.

    Online pedagogy can be a beautiful thing, but, as Ani DiFranco has pointed out, any tool can be a weapon if you hold it right.

    • Dr. Stemwedel,

      I'm glad to see this particular answer from you. It seems to me that headlines (and partisans on Twitter) characterized your department's posture as a rejection of MOOCs.

      (Similarly, the faculty vote at Amherst, which I read as rejection of a particular offer from a particular provider at a particular time, was headlined in some papers as a MOOC backlash.)

      What do you think about how the letter was presented?

      Robert McGuire
      Editor, MOOC News and Reviews

  • Physicalist says:

    Good for you. Thanks for standing up.

  • JJ says:

    First, thanks for discussing this and standing up to forced MOOC implementation!

    Two immediate thoughts I had reading your various links from today:

    1. It seems like universities that do this are going to eventually put themselves out of business. There's plenty of free material on every subject thanks to the internet. By embracing MOOCs in this way, higher education is expressing that the university model has nothing much to offer above and beyond this freely accesible information (which, simply isn't true, of course). So why choose to pay high tuition for it when you can get it for free?

    2. I saw a lot of comments that MOOC video lectures are similar to in-class lectures, implying a contradiction in reasoning in support of MOOCs. There is a difference, though. Thinking like the millennial generation, of which I'm barely young enough to make the cut by most estimates, the biggest benefit is the freedom that online videos offer. They can be accessed anywhere at any time, and most importantly, in chunks. You don't have to pay attention for 50 straight minutes. You can watch 10 minutes, get bored, make a sandwich, watch a YouTube video, text a friend, and then watch 10 more minutes. That's typical of how the millennial generation prefers to work, and one reason they would likely prefer online video to in class lectures.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    MOOC is the fast-food equivalent of higher education. With all of the same negative implications. Cheap and easy but ultimately damaging. Plus- it is a bait-and-switch pulled on the consumer.


  • This is part of my comment about Facebook at the Chronicle for Higher Education's post about use of Facebook for teaching: "I view Facebook as a place were I can go into a bit of depth, and Twitter (I'm @DrStelling) as a place for short "headlines". (I use LinkedIn for Professional Networking.)

    However, Facebook will never, ever replace a good old fashioned face-to-face chat with the student in terms of getting the concept right in their heads! I think we should make science text books free, and then charge for one-on-one in person conversations, which will never be replaced by the internet as the best way to learn challenging things like quantum mechanics."

    I say the same goes for MOOCs. What's being charged for at colleges and universities is the help of an expert- and not just a "technical expert", an expert who is adept at explaining complex topics in ways individual minds can understand. (You know, a "good teacher".)

    Each brain is a unique little snowflake, there are as many different ways to learn as there are neural architectures. A few you can just plop in a corner and watch 'em go at the text book-- however, most kids need a conversation to help them learn. (I believe this is called the "Socratic method", right?)

    I think colleges and universities should focus on charging for the conversation, not the textbook. Of course, this would require them to admit they need their professors, and perhaps start treating them as valuable assets to be treasured rather than disposable robots that give scripted lectures.

    Anyone can regurgitate a script. It takes a special talent - and patience - to actually listen to the trouble the student is having, and show them through clear conversations how to build the concept in their own minds.

  • [...] response to the SJSU Philosophy Department's open letter to Michael Sandel (which you can see in full here), at least two important things have [...]

  • [...] I'm continuing the round-up I began compiling in the last post of responses to the SJSU Philosophy Department's open letter to Michael Sandel (which you can see in full [...]

  • [...] is a further continuation of my (futile) efforts to round up responses to the SJSU Philosophy Department's open letter to Michael Sandel (which you can see in full here). Part 1 collected links mostly from old media-affiliated sites. [...]

  • c says:

    thank you for the PDF.