When Philosophers Rebel Against Dystopia

Philosophers at San Jose St are speaking out about the problems associated with Distance Ed. Here are some excerpts from their open letter, published May 2, 2013, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (HT: Chris Chelpka). They are reacting to a move by SJSU to adopt distance ed courses sold by edX.

There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course. We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours. Unfortunately, the move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university. We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality education and, ironically for a social justice course, the case of social injustice.

…Second, of late we have been hearing quite a bit of criticism of the traditional lecture model as a mismatch for today’s digital generation. Anat Agarwal, edX president, has described the standard professor as basically just “pontificating” and “spouting content,” a description he used 10 times in a recent press conference here at SJSU. Of course, since philosophy has traditionally been taught using the Socratic method, we are largely in agreement as to the inadequacy of lecture alone. But after all the rhetoric questioning the effectiveness of the antiquated method of lecturing and note taking, it is telling to discover that the core of edX’s JusticeX is a series of videotaped lectures that include excerpts of Harvard students making comments and taking notes. 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 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 and interacting with your students is itself a compelling testament to the value of the in-person lecture/discussion.

…Third, the 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….

We believe the purchasing of online and blended courses is not driven by concerns about pedagogy, but by an effort to restructure the U. S. University system in general, and our own California State University system in particular. If the concern we’re pedagogically motivated, we would expect faculty to be consulted and to monitor quality control. On the other hand, when change is financially driven and involves a compromise of quality it is done quickly, without consulting faculty or curriculum committees, and behind closed doors. This is essentially what happened with SJSU’s contract with edX. At a press conference (April 10, 2013 at SJSU) announcing the signing of the contract with edX, California Lieut. Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged as much: “the old education financing model, frankly, is no longer sustainable.” This is the crux of the problem. It is time to stop masking the real issue of MOOCs and blended courses behind empty rhetoric about a new generation and a new world. The purchasing of MOOCs and blended courses from outside vendors is the first step towards restructuring the CSU.

More on distance ed on the HB.

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  1. Thanks for the article, I will transfer to a csu (if not a private university) soon. This is something to contemplate. Dr. Clark, what are you thoughts about seminaries who also offer online courses, will wscal follow suite? Thanks for your time.

  2. I can imagine this (completely centralized, standardized, and computerized mass-enrollment courses) opening up a huge can of worms. For example, the company offering the course might say that you are not allowed to keep copies of course materials or textbooks after you finish the course or put other restrictions on you. E.g., you must have permission from the company in order to tutor someone enrolled in the course. You can justifiy a number of policies like this in the name of “lowering costs.”

  3. I have to strongly disagree concerning the usefulness of different forms of distance education. I think they have their place in our time, and I find many professors to be overrated in their usefulness. At many, if not all UCs, undergrads are required to take many classes that can have 200 or more students; one class I took had over 300. If you wish to interact with a professor, you will have fewer opportunities within this type of setting. Also, some professors are basically worthless when it comes to teaching; many times a good textbook is more than sufficient. I am reminded of the experience one engineering student had at Berkeley; concerning engineering professors he took, he basically said that he doesn’t doubt that many of the professors are brilliant, but they have no business teaching.

    I can give you example after example of professors, within science and mathematics, who were more of an impediment than help in my education. I can also give examples of two related general-ed classes, one traditional and the other on-line, and say hands down the on-line class was far superior.

    On CSUs and other public schools, it doesn’t surprise me that they they are trying to save money. Just look at how much some administrators and even some professors get paid; overpaid in my estimation. But, this is not the sole reason for their financial problems.

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