Philosophers Versus MOOCs

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Here’s an article from today’s Chronicle of Higher Education on the stand a few stouthearted philosophers at San Jose State University are taking against their administration’s suggestion (eventual requirement?) that they incorporate at least part of an EdX MOOC into their courses. I recently posted on my concern that MOOCs might eventually endanger intellectual diversity, particularly in the Humanities and Social Sciences; this article focuses on pedagogical concerns-

By Steve Kolowich

Professors in the philosophy department at San Jose State University are refusing to teach a philosophy course developed by edX, saying they do not want to enable what they see as a push to “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”

The San Jose State professors also called out Michael Sandel, the Harvard government professor who developed the course for edX, suggesting that professors who develop MOOCs are complicit in how public universities might use them.

In an open letter this week addressed to Mr. Sandel, the philosophy professors decried a dean’s request that the department integrate a MOOC version of “Justice,” the Harvard professor’s famous survey course, into the curriculum at San Jose State.

“In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience,” the letter’s authors write, “we believe that having a scholar teach and engage with his or her own students is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students.”

The letter is part of a brewing debate about how MOOCs might deepen the divide between wealthy universities, which produce MOOCs, and less wealthy ones, which buy licenses to use those MOOCs from providers like edX.

The authors say they fear “that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.”

In a statement to The Chronicle, San Jose State said it intends to leave faculty members in control of their courses, even where it is encouraging experimentation with edX materials like Mr. Sandel’s course.

“In the interest of clarity, our collaboration with edX does indeed locate the responsibility for the course solely with our faculty members, who will determine how much, or how little, of the edX course materials they will incorporate into their blended courses,” wrote Ellen Junn, provost and vice president for academic affairs.

“The administration would never impose or mandate these teaching methods on faculty members,” Ms. Junn continued.

But the authors of the philosophy-department letter are nonetheless worried about what could happen in the future. “Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”