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Culture & Religion

Harvard for the Masses?

Members of the philosophy department at San Jose State University reacted angrily last week when they were asked to consider incorporating Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel’s online Justice course into their curriculum. In an open letter to Sandel, the San Jose State faculty members rejected the idea of using Massive Open Online Courses as a “great peril to our university.”

My initial reaction was to cheer on the SJSU professors in their anti-MOOC manifesto, but after thinking through their complaints, I’m not sure all of their contentions are equally persuasive. Let’s take them one by one.

Complaint #1: Online courses are impersonal

Professor Sandel’s course has been one of the most popular offerings in Harvard’s Core since I was an undergraduate there two decades ago. Though I did not take the course myself, years after leaving Cambridge I shamelessly borrowed the title, the basic framework and some of the material to develop a syllabus for my own social justice course. “Justice” asks students to inquire critically into controversial political questions like wealth inequality, abortion and capital punishment, using resources from moral and political philosophy, not cable TV news blather, as guides.

The San Jose State philosophy department has no beef with the content of Sandel’s course; they object to its online dissemination:

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. Indeed, the videos of you lecturing to and interacting with your students is itself a compelling testament to the value of the in-person lecture/discussion.

This rings true. Interacting with a flesh-and-blood professor, and exploring questions together in real time with other students, offers an experience that watching a taped lecture cannot. Sandel may present issues with pith and wit, and he may have a knack for challenging students to think carefully about their preconceptions, but without direct interaction among students and teacher, the exercise is intellectual voyeurism. The Harvard students in the lecture hall can raise their hands to respond to one of Sandel’s questions, while satellite students in San Jose may only make a note of their idea or objection and wait for the video to end, or follow the line of discussion as the Cambridge gathering leads it along. This would indeed make the SJSU faculty into “glorified teaching assistants,” as the letter charges.

Still, a friend points out, a very small percentage of the 1000 or so Harvard undergrads actually participate in the Sandel-led banter over the fifteen weeks of the term. “Justice” is no seminar. So for the average student who spends the semester sitting and watching Sandel lecture, and who sits and watches a handful of fellow students ask and respond to questions, is the educational experience radically different from that of a student watching the video several thousand miles away?

Complaint #2: Reading books is preferable to watching lectures

This is the strangest and weakest of the San Jose professors’ critiques:

[P]urchasing a series of lectures does not provide anything over and above assigning a book to read. We do, of course, respect your work in political philosophy; nevertheless, having our students read a variety of texts, perhaps including your own, is far superior to having them listen to your lectures. This is especially important for a digital generation that reads far too little. If we can do something as educators we would like to increase literacy, not decrease it.

False dichotomy alert. A professor does not have to choose between showing a lecture and assigning a text any more than Sandel has to choose between delivering a lecture and assigning a reading in preparation for the lecture: he does both, as he should.

Complaint #3: MOOCs offer standardized curricula that spell ruin for liberal education

I’m not sure how to think about this aspect of the professors’ case. Have a look:

[T]he thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary – something out of a dystopian novel. Departments across the country possess unique specializations and character, and should stay that way. Universities tend not to hire their own graduates for a reason. They seek different influences. Diversity in schools of thought and plurality of points of view are at the heart of liberal education.

On one hand, yes, of course, every faculty member has special interests and areas of expertise, and every department has a particular valence. It would be a shame to reduce this diversity to one slickly produced video-based course by an erstwhile communitarian Harvard professor. On the other hand, the course is about different schools of thought and a wide plurality of points of view. That is the point of “Justice”: to explore the best arguments behind a wide range of divergent but defensible viewpoints. Sandel might not be the very best expositor of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, since much of his own work represents a critique of Rawlsian theory, but “Justice” is hardly an ideological monolith, and Sandel’s lectures and assignments provide plenty of opportunities for disagreement with his takes on the issues.

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Complaint #4: The turn to online courses is driven by financial, not pedagogical, considerations

Institutions of higher education across the land are plagued by a challenging budgetary climate, and MOOCs offer a way to educate students with fewer full-time faculty members. The letter writers’ bottom line:

With prepackaged MOOCs and blended courses, faculty are ultimately not needed. A teaching assistant would suffice to facilitate a blended course, and one might argue, paying a university professor just to monitor someone else’s material would be a waste of resources. Public universities that have so long and successfully served the students and citizens of California will be dismantled, and what remains of them will become a hodgepodge branch of private companies.

There are good pedagogical reasons to favor in-person teaching over wired classrooms, but the irony of this argument from the San Jose State faculty members is hard not to notice: they’re worried, at the end of the day, about their jobs. Their concerns, like those of their employers, are at least as financial as they are pedagogical. If Sandel’s online lectures stand in for courses developed by less skilled, less animated, less accomplished faculty members, they will make the employment market for Ph.D.s even grimmer than it already is, and there are reasons to worry about a world where it makes absolutely no sense for anyone to pursue a doctorate. Maybe it’s my naive optimism, but I’m not convinced online courses will really put Ph.D.s like me out of workwatching a screen can only be a component of a true education, at the end of the dayand there are undeniably positive effects that accompany the wide distribution of a great set of lectures.


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