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San Jose State to Michael Sandel: Keep your MOOC off our campus

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  May 3, 2013 04:26 PM

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Massive, open, online courses (MOOCs) have been hailed as a revolution in higher education but philosophers at San Jose State University (SJSU) have a different take. To them, the companies making MOOCs are higher education’s version of Walmart—powerful, irrepressible, and threatening to drive professors at smaller universities out of business.

They made this case in an open letter to Harvard University professor of philosophy Michael Sandel on April 29. Sandel teaches a MOOC class on social justice that is produced by edX, a non-profit MOOC collaboration between Harvard and MIT. Earlier in April, SJSU signed a contract to license edX content in its undergraduate classes. As part of that contract, the president of SJSU, Mohammad H. Qayoumi, asked the SJSU philosophy department to pilot Sandel’s JusticeX. The philosophy department refused—and in their open-letter to Sandel, they explained why.

In the first place, they argued, MOOCs are a poor way to learn. Good teaching, they explained, has to be personal and interactive but MOOCs are generic and uni-directional: Sandel lectures; his MOOC students listen. Due to similar concerns about MOOC pedagogy, this spring Amherst College became one of the first colleges to decline an invitation from edX to produce MOOC content.

The SJSU letter went on to explain that the real danger with MOOCs isn’t pedagogical—it’s that providers like edX and Coursera (a for-profit MOOC platform based in Silicon Valley) stand to undermine cash-strapped state university systems like California’s. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” the SJSU philosophy department wrote, “administrators at the [California State University] are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.” And if this happens, they argued, MOOCs like Sandel’s could end up having a very unjust impact on higher education:

Should one-size-fits-all vendor-designed blended courses become the norm, we fear two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures.

Several days after the SJSU letter was published, Sandel issued a response. He explained that his goal with JusticeX was “simply to make an educational resource freely available” but acknowledged that concerns about MOOCs damaging public universities are legitimate. MOOCs are almost certainly here to stay, but the exchange between SJSU and Sandel demonstrates that after several years of feverish adoption, there are still a lot of issues to work out.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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