Most of the conversation about online learning right now is centered around the MOOC. No relation to the Moog synthesizer, and as Wikipedia helpfully points out, “not to be confused with mook,” MOOC stands for massive online open course. Basically, what this means is that a college professor somewhere records all of his or her lectures and notes and makes them available for free to the public. Awesome, right? The tricky part is that students tend to drop out before completing their first assignment, which is not too surprising given the low buy-in of 0 dollars and the fact that most of these courses, in the current arrangement, do not provide for much teacher-student interaction or support.
Recently, despite these criticisms, the California State University system has started to seriously consider adding online options in order to provide access to courses to students who would otherwise be shut out due to budget cuts. San Jose State is leading the fray, partnering with the local tech start-up Udacity and the educational technology nonprofit edX (the same one whose essay-grading software I criticized last month) to start providing some remedial courses as MOOCs on an experimental basis. According to The New York Times, these courses will be provided to students at a cost well below the in-state tuition fee and will involve the direct participation of the on-campus professor of record.
And yet, the San Jose State Philosophy Department recently unleashed a scathing diatribe against the idea of offering these online courses, stating that this move was tantamount to “the dismantling of public universities” (New York Times 5/2/13). Hyperbole aside, I do appreciate their concern. I see major problems with privatizing public education, or rather privatizing it further than it is already (fodder for another post, another day). But in this case, the Philosophy department should have recognized its own straw man fallacy.
One of the main criticisms being lobbed is that the course would require professors to provide someone else’s lectures, and thus teach someone else’s viewpoint. And yet, again according to this article, professors are not required to use the edX materials, which just so happen to have been created by a well-known Harvard professor. The State professors are free to create and use their own materials, recording their own lectures for students to watch on their own time. So the issue they are clamoring about does not actually exist. Straw Man, meet Aunt Sally.
Instead, what is really happening is that a top professor from a top university is offering his lectures, for free, to students and professors at San Jose State. These lectures are theirs to use, or not use, as they see fit — a gift from one of the nation’s wealthiest universities to one of its poorest. How is this different from using a chapter of a textbook written by another professor, or even providing an article written by another as required reading? Can a professor not show a lecture, or segment of a lecture, and ask their students to debate its contents, to discuss the extent to which they agree or disagree with this individual’s view? What I see here is not a legitimate fear that online teaching might undermine quality education, but rather a resistance on the part of traditional education to adapt to a changing world and a changing student body. This is a resistance of fear, not of legitimate concern for educational priorities.
And then comes my favorite moment of the article, when I realized that this group of professors is engaging in a spot of academic doublespeak:
“(San Jose State Provost) Dr. Junn said she had e-mailed the philosophy department on Wednesday, the day she learned of the letter, to ask whether anyone wanted to discuss it, but was told there was no need, since the letter was mainly meant to raise the level of discussion” (New York Times 5/2/13) (emphasis added).
There was no need to discuss the letter, as it was mainly meant to raise the level of discussion. Said the San Jose State Philosophy Department. Circular argument, meet begging the question.
In all seriousness — the move into for-credit, public online education, is one that must be made cautiously. There must be careful attention paid to the quality of instruction and participation, the protection of academic and intellectual freedoms, and student outcomes above all else. But fear-mongering and hyperbole will not further the conversation. Unless, that is, this was all meant as a high-concept educational activity in which students are intended to identify the various logical fallacies being employed by both parties. A “teaching moment,” you might call it. And yet, I have a feeling this letter was written in earnest, a cri de coeur from a group of educators who fear to tread in the future. And yet, ready or not, here it comes — our state universities can either compete with the private, online schools on their own turf, or they can continue to resist change and allow themselves to lose the race. I suppose you know by now which side I fall on.