Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad MOOC?


Why not let him e-guest-lecture? (Michael Sandel of Harvard via Flickr/CC)

Are MOOCs and other online materials a threat to quality public higher education, and to our role as professors? The members of the philosophy department at San Jose State University think so. They recently issued an open letter to Michael Sandel, of Harvard University, objecting to his role in encouraging the use of MOOCs at public universities. The controversy stems from San Jose State’s contract with edX, a company that provides MOOCs, including one based on Sandel’s course on justice at Harvard. San Jose State has agreed to use materials provided by edX, but the philosophy department has refused to use Sandel’s online lectures in its courses.

I am a political theorist at a large public university, and this term, for the first time, I am teaching my course, “Introduction to Political Theory,” as a hybrid. I am using Sandel’s course on justice—not the MOOC, but essentially the same materials that are publicly available at—to provide much of the online portion of the course.  Though this is still an experiment, many of the arguments presented by the San Jose State philosophy professors do not ring true in light of my experience.

We should begin by distinguishing two issues. The philosophy professors state that they have felt pressured by their administration to use the materials from Sandel’s course. The administration denies exerting any such pressure. Whatever the truth of the matter, that is an issue of academic freedom, and not about the pedagogical merits of using MOOCs and other online materials.  I certainly agree that professors should be responsible for the content and pedagogy in their own courses.

The real issue, then, is whether the availability and use of online materials, whether through MOOCs or through other channels, is a threat to quality education, especially at public universities. Many of the arguments presented in the letter presuppose an either/or, all-or-nothing approach when it comes to face-to-face versus online teaching.  But the whole point of a hybrid, or blended, course is that it combines both. And it is difficult to see why it makes a great deal of difference whether the online content is delivered via a MOOC or not.

Nothing will ever replace the face-to-face discussions that occur in the classroom. But in many traditional, on-campus courses, little discussion occurs. In a lecture course with hundreds, or even just scores, of students, much of the time in the classroom is inevitably spent with the professor lecturing and the students (hopefully) taking notes—or at least listening attentively. In courses with a significant lecture component, the advantages of using online lectures are undeniable. I know from my own experience that, if my attention wanes for a few moments, it is very convenient to simply go back and play a portion again.  One can do the same if one doesn’t quite understand something the first time. And one need not miss material to take a bathroom break.

The availability of high-quality online lectures is an opportunity to rethink how we spend our time in the classroom. If an online lecture presents the material, or walks students through an argument, we are freed to spend more time discussing the aspects of the material that are most difficult—or most interesting. We can do other kinds of activities that we might not have time for if we felt obliged to present the material in the traditional way. Yes, hybrid courses usually involve less face-to-face time, but that time can be better and more effectively spent.

The philosophy professors also seem to assume that only professors at elite universities can provide online lectures and other materials, and that public-university professors will inevitably be reduced to being “consumers” of this material. But why should that be the case? Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can produce and make publicly available material that others might find helpful. A great deal already exists on YouTube and elsewhere. And as MOOCs become more commonplace, some enterprising computer programmer can be counted on to offer software or a Web site that makes it easier for individual professors, or institutions with modest means, to produce MOOCs.

I believe that at some point each of us, the experts in our respective fields, should be providing online lectures, if not entire MOOCs, that the rest of us can use. We should look upon online lectures and similar materials as a way to draw on others’ expertise. As it is, I read some of the secondary literature on a theorist whose work I teach. Why not let the students hear a lecture on that thinker by a colleague at another university whose work I find so helpful in preparing my own lectures? Why not give students direct access to the deep knowledge of the genuine specialists on each of the works or thinkers that we cover?  Yes, the students could read the secondary literature too, but surely there are advantages to lectures. Otherwise, why do we provide them in the classroom?

One should hope that eventually there would be a wide variety of lectures available online from which professors and students could choose. These might be available through a MOOC, or YouTube, or both. The “downright scary” prospect envisioned by the San Jose State professors of the exact same course being taught in various departments across the country need not come to pass. That depends on whether others provide alternative material, and whether professors uniformly choose the same materials. The scary prospect can be avoided if each of us picks and chooses among a wide array of alternatives, crafting our own distinctive combination of materials.

Using a MOOC for a hybrid course is like adopting a textbook. You can use all of it, or just parts. You can use its exercises and tests, or not. You can still choose what to emphasize in the classroom, and still make your own assignments.

In the end, the crucial thing is that the instructor remains in the driver’s seat—and that takes us back to academic freedom. As long as individual professors are choosing what material to assign or recommend, running their in-class discussions and adding material that they think is not adequately covered in the online lectures, choosing the assignments and tests, and grading those tests, there is no threat to the professoriate, or to the quality of education at universities, public or otherwise.

Andrew Valls is an associate professor of political science at Oregon State University.

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