Editors' Note: This is the fourth of a four-part series on education reform, online technology, and the future of learning.


I am one of the signers of the open letter by the professors of philosophy at San José State University to Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University concerning his involvement in edX, a start-up company that offers massive open online courses (MOOCs). The letter, collaboratively written by members of the department and approved by all, explained our reasons for resisting the implementation of JusticeX, a course based on videotaped lectures from Sandel’s massively popular Harvard course on justice, in our curriculum. We wrote:

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 of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social justice.

Although our letter sparked much needed discussion about the value of MOOCs, confusion remains about the options presented by new education technologies and the potential value they may have for higher learning.

Our concern is not so much with a particular course, with curricular decisions in our university, or even with the future of philosophy as a discipline (although all of these things are deeply important), but with the future of higher education itself, and hence, frankly, with the future of our culture. The key problem is not even MOOCs so much as it is with the reduction of knowledge to that which can be tested by a multiple-choice exam or similar methods. It is the “massive” aspect of MOOCs that raises the deepest problems. MOOCs pose a great threat to the most important value of higher education: “literacy.”  By “literacy” I mean, very broadly, the ability to read, think about, and intelligently respond (both orally and in writing) to the literature of any field of study. Thus, implementation of MOOCs for university credit is bad because it is bad for our students.  


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MOOC has become a loosely used term for three different types of courses in the new vision of online university. The first is the paradigmatic massively open online course (MOOC): a fully automated machine-run course with no face-to-face instruction or human contact that is open to everyone. The second is the closed massive online course, which is fully automated and accredited but open only to enrolled, tuition-paying students. SJSU offers five such courses through Udacity—a private online-higher-education company born from a Stanford experiment in making an Artificial Intelligence course available online—in our summer program to a maximum of 1000 students each. The third category is the blended course. This type is still fully automated but adds an in-class component. SJSU currently offers one such course, edX’s Electronics and Circuits. I am only concerned here with the second and third sorts of courses.

One of the most essential components of quality education is learning how to write clearly and persuasively. Indeed, employers often complain that we are not doing this job well enough! MOOCs promise to save money, but they can only do so if they replace the grading of written work by qualified individuals with multiple-choice tests or, if there is a writing component, papers that are graded by machines or by fellow students (would students and their parents really want papers to be graded by people who are totally unprepared for the job?)  Currently the main form of grading in MOOCs appears to be based simply on multiple-choice exams. Yet is instruction based on such methods as valuable as writing-intensive teaching directed by qualified instructors? While multiple-choice exams are perfectly acceptable as one tool among many, they cannot assess or help shape literacy.

To get a sense of the extreme limits of multiple-choice exams, consider Harvard Professor of Classics Gregory Nagy’s mythology class. According to Nathan Heller’s New Yorker article “Laptop U: Has the Future of College Moved Online,” the course, in its brick-and-mortar version, is especially popular partly because it is extremely easy. Known on campus as “Heroes for Zeros,” the course employs a “soft-grading curve” based on multiple-choice tests. Heller gives the following sample question: 

What is the will of Zeus?

a) To send the souls of Heroes to Hades

b) To cause the Iliad.

c) To cause the Trojan War.

According to Nagy, the best answer is b. But a good student could write a paper supporting any one of the three answers. Nagy’s course has reportedly now been offered as a MOOC with 27,000 students and alumni working as volunteer mentors. Even with the volunteers, it is inconceivable that such a course would demand carefully written reflection by its students.

Actual knowledge requires more than being able to do well on such an exam. It also demands an ability to integrate and explore information creatively—an ability that cannot be so measured or encouraged. Here we run into a larger problem that also plagues K–12 education: seeing knowledge merely in terms of packets of information that can be imparted to students and then measured by standardized tests. The results of No Child Left Behind are telling here. As many critics have pointed out, it has encouraged highly regimented instruction based on “teaching to the test.” As a result, many of the college freshmen I encounter have never written a single paper of any sort in high school. MOOCs are just a symptom of our society’s degraded approach to knowledge itself.  

The elite colleges promoting MOOCs are not only endangering less elite institutions but also undercutting themselves.

In my years of experience as a philosophy professor, I have found that the development of critical and creative thinking skills through writing and rewriting is the most important part of my students’ education. My lower-division students are expected to write about 12 pages in homework, formal papers, exams and in-class writing—all of which receives my critical feedback. Moreover, in my classes, unlike a MOOC, all papers and written homework assignments can be rewritten for a better grade and I encourage this.

 Another essential component to genuine education is close, careful, critical reading. MOOCs, however, discourage the acquisition of college-level reading skill. When the edX package of Sandel’s lectures was proposed to us, we were told that the amount of time students would spend using the platform would be monitored. They were expected to work online at home for nine hours a week, mainly watching videos and taking quizzes. Assuming a typical load of five courses, students who took only MOOC courses would spend about 45 hours per week watching video clips and taking quizzes. What time would they have left for reading Plato, Shakespeare, or Freud? Even before MOOCs came along my experience with classroom videos has been that, although they can be valuable teaching tools, they can easily be overused and often lead to passivity by both students and teachers.


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In order to clarify the vision of MOOCs for higher education, consider the way they’re supposed to save money. In a Wall Street Journal article “Coursera Makes Case for MOOCs” (May 14, 2013), Daphne Koller—cofounder of Coursera, an online education company started by her and fellow Stanford computer scientist Andrew Ng—argues that MOOCs promise savings through instructors spending less time on content development and grading. “It gives them time to cover more students,” Koller says. “If you only come to the classroom once a week, the instructor can then have another section a week.”  So the added efficiency will be in increasing the number of sections taught by each faculty member. “The role of the teacher will change,” Koller says. “[A] teacher will have more time to spend teaching, as opposed to spending time in content development and preparation and in grading endless repetitions of the same assignment.” So teachers will no longer prepare for their classes or develop their own lectures.  

I am stunned that Koller thinks that teaching is somehow radically distinct from the content that is taught—that college teachers are just content-providers rather than active intellects engaged both in their fields and in their students’ learning.  The idea of “grading endless repetitions of the same assignment” seems to assume that grading papers year after year is a waste of time. Yet even though assignments may be similar, and are sometimes tedious to grade, it will always be new to the students.     

Such a vision not only reduces education to rote learning, it also reduces the educator to the role of a mere technician, a position that can be performed by someone with minimal skills and no real understanding of his students or subject matter. If doing research, developing ideas, and integrating them into one’s teaching are eliminated, what reason would there be for bright people to want to go into higher education? What models will students have for pursuing serious study in a particular field if they no longer have access to real scholars in those fields? Moreover, if the teaching of justice, for example, is left to a MOOC taught by one star instructor, who will be able to mount a critique of those ideas  for the students in that particular class? The minimally skilled teaching assistant?

In a recent Times Higher Education article (“Can San José show U.S. academy the way?” May 16, by John Marcus), SJSU’s President Mohammad Qayoumi, a leading advocate of MOOCs, argues that systems based on online learning will be individualized and will actually “enhance the success of students.” Yet it is hard to imagine how this will work if it entails reducing the number of teachers and the amount of time each teacher spends on student assignments.

Some have argued that MOOCs are just elaborate high-tech textbooks and that, therefore, there is nothing to worry about: they are not really courses but are only course supplements. If MOOCs were textbooks, there would be little concern. After all, technologically enhanced textbooks have been around a long time. However, the reason why MOOCs are promoted is to save money by having faculty teach more sections. But what this unavoidably means is less attention paid to individual students. Moreover, at most public universities and struggling private ones, faculty will be replaced with “mentors” who will not be able to critique or intelligently discuss the content. This is guaranteed to produce a second-class education.


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Nathan Heller’s New Yorker article portrayed the U.S. university system as two-tiered with the elite universities, on the one hand, and everyone else on the other. But its description of non-elite institutions was a distortion of what actually happens in college and university classrooms throughout this country. When he describes 80 percent of colleges as “the populist arm of higher education” and suggests that most of the professors do not have PhDs and have no research support, he distorts what happens at SJSU and countless other colleges and universities. In fact, our system of higher education is multi-tiered, hierarchical, and interdependent in complex ways. By essentially seeking to downsize the rest of the higher education system, the elite colleges promoting MOOCs (and many of them, for example Duke and Amherst, to their credit, are beginning to question their involvement) are not only endangering less elite institutions but also undercutting themselves.

Many professors at elite universities fail to recognize that they rest on the tip of an iceberg and that they will no longer have the same support if they allow the rest of the system to melt away. If departments like ours at SJSU are dissolved or greatly diminished in favor of MOOCs, elite scholars will lose a very large part of their intellectual audience. PhD granting institutions will be particularly affected: we will no longer be sending students to study in their graduate programs and we will no longer be hiring their students. The vibrant ecosystem of higher learning as a whole will decline because fewer and fewer students will actually be inspired by live teachers or will even read books by such teachers.

It is telling that elite professors and universities who design MOOCs aren’t using them for their own students. Those of us who value education and its role in fostering both literacy and democracy should pass on them too.