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.
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.
via Big Think – STEVEN MAZIE
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