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May 6, 2013

Why MOOCs Fail At Real Education

Well, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports the big news that philosophy professors at San Jose State have refused to adopt a pilot program centered on the legendary Harvard professor Michael Sandel's MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on justice.  Here are my reflections on their stand:

  • Watching the Sandel MOOC doesn't add anything of value to reading a book by Sandel.  A lecture by Sandel might well be better than a lecture by a local professor. It might be better to discuss a book by Sandel with Sandel. Or maybe not:  It's hard to develop a critical perspective on Sandel with Sandel himself as the authority in the room. Better still would be local professor leading a discussion on the book by Sandel in a small class. The local professor can hold students accountable for having read Sandel in the way Sandel himself can't. Better doesn't mean best: Sandel is more a first-rate lecturer than a first-rate thinker. Best of all would be a local professor leading a discussion on Tocqueville and Marx or Aristotle and Aquinas. 
  • The criticism of the teaching-by-lecture as nothing but pontificating and spouting content contain much truth. But the Sandel MOOC is a series of lectures than amply displays both those excesses.  A more nuanced criticism of the lecture method is that the student finds the lecture so persuasive that s/he thinks there's no point in doing the reading. The professor understands Plato or John Stuart Mill so much better than I do, they say, so there's no way I'm getting what he's getting out of it when I read it. (Or: This guy is so enthusiastic and so dogmatic about his interpretation of these authors that getting my own opinion might be bad for my grade.
  • Consider that a kind of equivalent to the MOOC has been around for a generation. Most of the lecture classes of the legendary professor of political philosophy Leo Strauss were recorded, and the transcripts and, more recently, tapes have been available to those interested. Reading the transcript, in truth, is more instructive than listening to tape.  It's true in the case of Strauss that paying an hour's attention to the transcript seems to be more efficient way to learn what's really going in the Symposium than actually reading the Symposium. But it's also true Strauss spoke and wrote in such a way that you understand his lecture or book a lot better if you actually did the reading. It's not so bad to be encouraged to read Plato to understand Strauss, although Strauss himself, unlike Heidegger or Hannah Arendt, worked pretty hard to keep Plato the focus.
  • Strauss was a great teacher, but his was hardly a model classroom. A gifted teacher's class is a lot less scripted or predictable.  How the text is related to the student's lives or current events or seemingly more random questions depends on the character of students. Many so-called "Straussians" in small colleges are much better teachers than Strauss was himself. Part of their excellence depends, of course, on what they learned from Strauss. But only part.

  • The San Jose State professors say they prefer the "traditional" Socratic method to the lecture.  It's hard to know what this means.  Socrates never taught a class, and one reason among many that he refused to take money for dispensing his wisdom is that someone might mistake him for a teacher.  The San Jose professors are pretty worried, in truth, that the widespread use of the Sandel MOOC will cause many of them to be paid less or not at all.
  • But insofar as there is a "Socratic method," it's about the teacher paying the closest possible attention to the character and level of intellectual development of his interlocutors.  Plato wrote dialogues (very wordy plays) rather than treatises--much less textbooks--in order to convey different messages to different kinds of readers.  No MOOC can do that.
  • The Socratic method isn't just "letting students talk" or facilitating their development of their interpersonal and collaborative skills.  It's, of course, pretty much impossible for a professor to find that perfect balance between teaching students through talking about the text himself and listening to students give their own views. I've had students complain on the evaluation that I let (the other) students talk too much. That's because I didn't do a sufficiently Socratic job of showing how their opinions revealed something about who they are and the truth about the subject at hand.
  • But in my defense: The Platonic dialogues aren't accurate records of actual conversations, and Socrates' performance is unrealistically perfect. I know I err on the side of talking too much without exactly lecturing, but that's partly because I know the class can last only so long. Obviously requiring a certain number of hours in class (and usually no more) to earn credit for this or that subject is fairly ridiculous. But it's even more ridiculous to replace those hours with MOOC watching. 
  • If you wanted to make education as passionate as possible, you'd detach it from credits and money altogether, as Socrates seemed to do. That's one reason some libertarians these days conclude that education-for-money should be about marketable skills and competencies, but philosophy should be for your free time. Philosophy professors should recover the wisdom of Socrates by remembering that what they teach isn't about and isn't worth money. It's okay for today's philosophers to follow Socrates' lead and mooch off their rich friends, if they can find any. But they have no right to stick it to the poor students.
  • Socrates himself wouldn't have been so impractical as to have dissed today's education that genuinely aimed at giving students various skills and competencies. He says that the sophists are really teachers, and their useful knowledge is well worth the money they're paid. It's just that they know less than they think they do, and they make the mistake of thinking that the whole point of education is to acquire wealth and power. So Socrates wouldn't be against a plumbing MOOC or an accounting MOOC. It's the philosophy MOOC that he would find laughable.
  • The main problem with letting the Sandel MOOC catch on is that philosophy itself will be connected with Sandel's very questionable--really, very muddled and middlebrow--political opinions. A Marxist would say we'll there's no way one of our guys will become a MOOC rock star; his opinions are too radical. A conservative would say the say the same for their guys; their opinions are too politically incorrect or genuinely countercultural.  They both would be right. MOOCs will make the "humanities" more politically correct and dogmatic than ever, and that, it goes without saying, will thrill our administrators and bureaucrats. Standardized and commodified education ain't liberal. It isn't an education that cares about the soul.

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