Reasonable Words: SJSU says no to Michael Sandel’s edX Justice Course

The beginning of some bits and bobs from recent reading:

The Case Against MOOC’s to teach a social justice course, eloquently put by the the Philosophy faculty at San José State University explaining why they won’t be using Michael Sandel’s edX course.

One excerpt:

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 injustice.

From The Chronicle of Higher Ed, article at And tipped by Brian Leiter’s great blog.

I haven’t made my mind up about MOOCs, beyond being bummed by the fact that instead of some new, innovative curriculum and structure, they seem to be embodying Marshall McLuhan’s point that the first thing we do with a new medium is put up content from a previous format. (Vaudeville on Radio, Radio on TV). College curriculum and structure reflects educational ideas and political, social norms of a century ago. (We go to school Sept-June not because there is anything intrinsically sacred about it, but because our once agrarian nation needed farm labor in the summer. We have lectures, in part, because when books were rare and expensive, it was a reasonably efficient use of the medium of print to read books to a large group. Now we can, as the letter suggests, read them ourselves.)

What I hadn’t seen was MOOCs as basically an automation solution to the crisis of funding in higher ed. Once upon a time professors taught you, then grad students and adjuncts filled this role, and MOOCs give a computer this task, with “pedagogical mechanical turks” that grade things. The SJSU letter’s concern about financing brings up such thoughts, and they are right in my view for fighting to teach courses they have staff to teach. But what about the case when the course is already gone and the MOOC becomes the option faute de mieux, for lack of anything else? As Sandel might say himself, what’s the right thing to do? I suppose you could check one of his books out of a public library.

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MOOCs before there were MOOCs…the reading room at New York Public Library. Freely available, and there’s a local “franchise” in your town.


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