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


The backlash against MOOCs and online learning in higher education has begun. Philosophers at San Jose State University recently wrote an open letter to Harvard’s Michael Sandel, explaining why they were declining to support the use of his acclaimed class, Justice, in an online format provided by edX, an online course platform created jointly by Harvard and MIT. “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves,” they wrote. Moving beyond Sandel’s class to MOOCs of all kinds, they broadly rejected “products that will replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”

The letter is an exceptional document, articulating with welcome clarity several distinct objections and concerns. In considering the future of higher education in an era of MOOCs and the expansion of online learning, these objections and concerns are worthy of widespread attention and debate.

What are their objections? First, they dismissed outright the idea that JusticeX in particular and MOOCs in general would provide a better learning experience for students than traditional courses taught by SJSU faculty. Second, apart from questions of quality, the San Jose State philosophers sounded an alarm about how adopting MOOCs, provided by for-profit start-up enterprises such as Coursera, Udacity, and Minerva, or not-for-profit companies founded by private, elite universities, such as edX, would privatize higher education and widen the already large gap between wealthy, private universities and their poorer, public counterparts. And third, they worried that MOOCs would accelerate the hollowing out of the professoriate, facilitating the cost-saving replacement of faculty at state universities and community colleges with para-faculty, adjuncts, and teaching assistants who would serve as nothing more than support staff for star MOOC faculty.

I focus here on the issue of quality, touching only briefly on the second and third objections.


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Sandel is legendary lecturer, and Justice is rightly one of the most celebrated courses at Harvard and among philosophers across the globe. Over the past two decades, the class has enrolled more than 15,000 students and employed hundreds of philosophy, government, and law graduate students as teaching assistants. Even skeptics of the course acknowledge Sandel’s pedagogical mastery: he orchestrates brilliant short Socratic exchanges in a large lecture, with hundreds of students.

And yet the San Jose State philosophers are right about the poor quality of JusticeX. It is almost certainly inferior to what the SJSU faculty could offer its students. How can this be?

I teach political philosophy, including large lecture courses, so I signed up for JusticeX with interest and went through most of the course content. Masterly though Sandel is as a teacher of Justice at Harvard, JusticeX is dispiritingly uninventive, seemingly disinterested in experimenting with any of the novel forms of faculty-student and student-student interaction that many online platforms, including edX, make possible. Several years ago, Sandel boldly partnered with PBS to create television programs consisting of high quality video recordings of his Harvard lectures, replete with multiple camera angles, high quality audio, and professional editing. The resulting series and subsequent release of the program online attracted millions of viewers. In creating JusticeX, Sandel chose to do nothing more than upload the PBS video recordings, broken down into shorter chunks, accompanied by poorly written multiple-choice quizzes on the content at regular intervals. No attempt was made to record new material for the online class; instead students watch old video of students interacting in Harvard’s Sanders Theater with Sandel. No attempt was made to create supplementary materials designed specifically for online learning; instead students get links to a syllabus, readings from Sandel’s textbook and a selection of other texts (only the ones in the public domain). No attempt was made to curate a robust and interactive student discussion forum; instead online discussions consist of hundreds one or two sentence posts by students with scarcely any replies by Sandel, his teaching assistants, or other students. No attempt was made to foster student learning through digital projects, essay assignments, or the kind of written assessment or section discussions that Harvard students experience.

I do not know how Sandel’s course came to edX, but it seems likely that he had little to do with JusticeX beyond consenting to the use of existing PBS videos and course materials. Sandel appeared once, live, to answer questions from JusticeX students. Otherwise, he might not have had any involvement at all.

When the San Jose State philosophers say to Sandel that “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,” they are correct. When they observe that “purchasing a series of lectures does not provide anything over and above assigning a book to read,” they are also correct.

What this demonstrates, however, is not the inferiority of MOOCs but a lack of imagination in the case of JusticeX. The class does almost nothing to explore the possibilities of online learning.

MOOCs are widely celebrated for their democratizing potential, spreading course experiences previously available only to a privileged few to anyone in the world with an internet connection. If the alternative is no philosophy class at all, JusticeX is welcome innovation. Something, of whatever quality, offered for free, will always beat nothing. But when JusticeX is offered, for example, at San Jose State University where the alternative is a course taught by the local faculty, its value is less clear.

The cliché that 'more research is needed' is actually true about MOOCs.

The San Jose State philosophers rightly compare the quality of student learning in regular classes to that in online classes. If MOOCs promise to enhance student learning, they must show that they deliver at least as powerful outcomes as traditional lecture classes in universities and community colleges.  If not, their virtue is their democratizing potential; they will only be better than nothing.

The San Jose State philosophers want to do better by their students, and they have good reason to reject JusticeX, a poorly executed MOOC.  But they can’t tell us much us about MOOCs’ prospects more generally.


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Champions of MOOCs and online learning frequently exhibit a lamentable techno-utopianism, making claims about the benefits of online education far beyond what any data currently warrants. Critics of MOOCs and online learning frequently exhibit a Luddite protectionism, as if the college campus and classroom should be immune from the effects of technological advancement that have swept across other industries. We ought to reject both stances.

I believe MOOCs can do better, and that faculty should welcome innovations in different online learning platforms, and the experimentation by some professors in providing online learning experiences on these platforms. Creating a powerful online course is no simple undertaking, as any instructor who has experimented with MOOCs knows. But I believe that MOOCs, over the coming years, will do better than a large lecture class with little or no opportunity for discussion and for which student assessments are machine-graded exams or problem sets. It’s worth noting that such lecture courses constitute the norm for millions of students across all levels of higher education.

Consider this: the JusticeX dustup occurred in the wake of a San Jose State experiment in an introductory course in electrical engineering.  The university offered one section that used a different MOOC provided by edX. The students in that section passed at a significantly higher rate than those in regular sections.

This is but one study, and no serious conclusions ought be drawn from it. The cliché that “more research is needed” is actually true. And to the credit of San Jose State, the university has obtained funding from the National Science Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study, using a rigorous research design, the adoption of online learning courses in math and statistics provided by Udacity. It is the first NSF grant to study MOOC outcomes.

Suppose research finds that the incorporation of high-quality MOOCs and other online learning experiences into existing classrooms, so-called blended learning, leads to on average better student learning outcomes than in traditional lecture courses, at least in some subjects. What of the worry of the San Jose State philosophers that online learning will lead to the displacement of professors and the hollowing out of the tenure-line professoriate?

We need to distinguish two considerations here. First, cost concerns. William Bowen has written trenchantly about the long-standing cost disease problem in higher education. Bowen believes that online learning might provide a mechanism to tame skyrocketing costs in higher education. If online learning can deliver equal or better learning outcomes and bring down the marginal cost of delivering these outcomes, this benefit must be weighed against the cost of displacing professors.

Second, there’s a concern about loss in research productivity if online education were to displace large numbers of tenure-line professors. How ought we weigh that loss? If the number of faculty were to decline by one-third at universities and community colleges, would research productivity suffer? I don’t know, but I don’t think it is obvious that it would. In a discussion of Bowen’s lectures on the cost disease, Stanford’s President, John Hennessy, said that the United States “supports too many institutions doing research.” Bowen agreed.

We don’t know yet how to referee with any certainty the trade-offs involved. But taming the cost disease is an important task for a variety of reasons: making higher education more affordable, more accessible, and reversing the generation-long rise of higher education costs far beyond the inflation rate. If online education can lower the marginal cost of delivering quality learning experiences to students, the pressure to displace faculty will be powerful and difficult to resist, and for good reason. But much depends on whether online education can make good on its promise: to deliver better or equal educational outcomes relative to the equivalent class taught by a faculty member.

As the San Jose State philosophers correctly observe, MOOCs can be introduced for reasons other than their merits.  When they are pushed by corporate interests or cost-cutting administrators, without regard for their quality, faculty have good reason to resist their wide-scale adoption.

At this early moment in the evolution of MOOCS and online learning, as the first significant backlash is gaining momentum, it’s important to identify the both the stakes and the relevant questions. It’s one thing if the aspiration of online learning is to democratize education by bringing courses to anyone in the world with an internet connection. This is a humanitarian mission, and where business models or philanthropically supported companies can provide such classes, where the alternative to enrolled students is no class at all, it is a welcome future. But these are not the only stakes. Online education holds the promise of delivering better learning outcomes at lower cost for students whose alternative is not nothing but a traditional college class. The San Jose State philosophers are right to question the introduction of JusticeX into their department. But it remains an open question, one worth pursuing, whether MOOCs and other forms of online learning will realize their greater goal.