Thursday, May 2, 2013

San José profs nix Harvard MOOC

The Philosophy Department at San José State University has decided not to make use of Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s MOOC [Massive open online course] JusticeX. The department has explained its decision in an open letter to Sandel. An excerpt:

In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience, we believe that having a scholar teach and engage his or her own students in person is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students.
I’d be proud to knew these faculty as colleagues. Their principled stand for (what I call) real-presence education and against its cheap simulacrum should prove a model for faculty in similar circumstances.

More from the Chronicle of Higher Education
Why Professors at San José State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC
The Philosophy Department’s open letter
Michael Sandel’s response

Thanks to Stefan Hagemann for catching these developments before I did. If you care about teaching and learning, take the time to read Stefan’s post about how to answer a professor’s question in class.

comments: 4

Pete said...

Hmmm, I wonder if these professors' commitment for "real presence education" includes a refusal to lecture in big lecture halls in front of hundreds or thousands of students. From my experience at Foellinger Auditorium or Lincoln Hall in Urbana, there isn't much more teacher-student interaction in that setting than in a MOOC.

normann said...

My favorite course during my freshman year at the University of Illinois (1976) was History 111, which at the time began with the Italian Renaissance and ended with the French Revolution. It was a combination lecture-discussion, two lectures per week in Lincoln Hall auditorium and two discussions in an ordinary classroom. The professor happened to be an expert in Early Modern Europe, and the TA was a doctoral candidate who was no less enthusiastic. The lectures were riveting. What I liked especially were the texts for the course, which included H.R. Trevor-Roper's collection of essays on the witch craze. It would be a prized possession still, if it had been printed on low-acid paper, but it - and every other copy on the planet - has long since crumbled to dust.

Unknown said...

Hi Michael:

First I should mention to your readers that even though you and I share the same last name (and interest in aesthetics), we are not related (that we know of). Second, thanks for your support of my department's stand on MOOCs. I am very proud of this and am currently much involved in the "skeptical about MOOCs" movement. Third, your first commentator, Pete, is under a common misapprehension about teaching universities like my own. A "teaching university" is unlike Harvard or Berkeley in that we do not have massively large classes. Although I have on occasion taught up to a one hundred students my usual general education class size is forty. I have never been offered a class of over one hundred but I will assure Pete that I would not teach it if I had a choice. I would never teach a course of thousands under any circumstance. I believe that doing so is not "teaching": it is media entertainment, which is fine for public television and for casual learners who already have a set of reading and writing skills. So I am not saying I would not participate in a PBS program on philosophical aesthetics (my specialization) if asked. But as for the work I do for a living, which is being a professor, MOOCs are the wrong path. I do not even like teaching the 100 student course I have sometimes been assigned since doing so cuts back on student involvement in class discussion.

Many writers who support MOOCs do not realize that MOOCs are being touted as replacement for small classes like mine, not for big classes. The reason is that MOOCs are supposed to save money. They only save money if they replace a very large number of little classes, not a very small number of large classes. So MOOCs are essentially destructive of fact-to-face intimate style Socratic teaching. Note also, with respect to Norman's comment, that MOOCs cannot save money if they involve Phd candidate TAs. Coursera does not hire such TAs. The TAs for MOOCs are not specialists in the field. It is not even clear that they need to meet any standards at all. Moreover, most since MOOCs are massive they cannot involve actual grading of papers. They are multiple-choice based. So Norman's favorite course will be impossible in the world of MOOCs. This is why MOOCs are a major disaster waiting for higher education.

Tom Leddy
San Jose State

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments on this post.

Tom, I don’t think we could be related: my ancestors (as far as I know) were all on the East Coast. But we are certainly like-minded on these matters. Here’s something I wrote in another post: “If powerful and moneyed interests now seeking to reshape higher education have their way, ‘college’ will soon become a two-tier system, with the real thing for a privileged few (MOOC stars have to teach somewhere, right?) and credits and credentials, haphazardly assembled, vocationally themed, for everyone else. If this prospect weren’t in itself appalling, the rhetoric of inevitability that sells it — get on board or be swept away — would be reason enough to object.” That MOOCs are being sold with claims of increasing access to education makes the whole thing farcical, but no less dangerous.

Did you see the detail in the recent New Yorker article about Harvard doctoral students being trained in “MOOC production”? Talk about eating your young.