Political Philosophy

This is going to be a more personal blog post than I typically make here at e-Literate.

The open letter from San José State University’s philosophy department in protest of the edX JusticeX course being taught at SJSU is getting a lot of attention, as is the follow-up statement from the SJSU faculty senate. I have some concerns with both of these letters—particularly the one from the philosophy department—but before I get into them, I’d like to emphasize my points of agreement and solidarity with the department:

  • As a former philosophy major and a former teacher of philosophy courses to seventh and eighth graders, I strongly believe that a course in social justice is critical to every American’s education.
  • I also strongly agree that, in order for such a course to be effective, it must be up-to-date, relevant to the students, and involve in-depth facilitated discussion.
  • I agree that there is a bit of a bait-and-switch going on, possibly unintentionally, with the rhetoric about MOOCs providing superior pedagogy over lecture classes (which is probably somewhat true) and then moving to swap out discussion classes for MOOCs instead.
  • I agree that some MOOC fans (though by no means all of them) have simplistic notions of how MOOCs can make university education cheaper without thinking through the consequences either to the quality of education or the fiscal health of the colleges and universities that still provide tremendous value to our nation and our culture.
  • I agree that intellectual diversity is very important, particularly when discussing complex issues that are essential to a functioning democracy, and that the potential for an intellectual monoculture is a concern worth taking very seriously.
  • While I have no knowledge of the negotiations between edX and SJSU, I strongly agree that such partnerships should be conceived and implemented with active consultation and collaboration with faculty unless there is exceptionally strong justification to do otherwise.

Despite all this common ground on values that are dear to me, I find aspects of the department’s letter to be deeply problematic.

To begin with, there is this:

Good quality online courses and blended courses (to which we have no objections) do not save money, but pre-packaged ones do, and a lot.

That statement is demonstrably false. Good quality online courses and blended courses can, in fact, save money. How do we know? For starters, the National Center for Academic Transformation has a long list of course redesign projects they have been doing in collaboration with colleges in universities since 1999, many of which have achieved substantial cost savings. And some of them actually achieved substantial improvement in outcomes while achieving substantial cost savings. Nor is NCAT alone. There is a growing body of empirically backed academic literature showing that we can teach more students more effectively for less money across a variety of subjects. Some subjects are easier to redesign than others. But cost savings in high-quality courses is possible as a general proposition (and does not require open content licensing, by the way). The SJSU philosophy department’s blanket denial of this possibility is not credible.

As a result, the authors of the letter are also less credible when they write,

In addition to providing students with an opportunity to engage with active scholars, expertise in the physical classroom, sensitivity to its diversity, and familiarity with one’s own students is just not available in a one-size-fits-all blended course produced by an outside vendor….When a university such as ours purchases a course from an outside vendor, the faculty cannot control the design or content of the course; therefore we cannot develop and teach content that fits with our overall curriculum and is based on both our own highly developed and continuously renewed competence and our direct experience of our students’ abilities and needs.

There appears to be a significant disconnect here. On the one hand, the department argues (correctly, in my view) that philosophy students gain great benefit from “the opportunity to engage with active scholars.” On the other hand, they assert that the philosophy department has “expertise in the physical classroom” and a “highly developed and continuously renewed competence” despite the overwhelming likelihood that most of the faculty have not had significant opportunities to engage with active scholars in pedagogy-related fields.

They could have made their case just as effectively without foreclosing the possibility of improving on what they already do. As the letter from the SJSU Faculty Association notes in response to the improved completion rates of the edX course,

The pedagogical infrastructure and work that has gone into the preparation of the edX material could easily be replicated if SJSU made a commitment to pedagogy and made training in pedagogy central to all faculty.

This is a defensible argument that the philosophy department could have made. But it didn’t. Instead, it implicitly denied the existence of the scholarship of teaching and explicitly blamed the university’s financial issues on “industry” for “demanding that public universities devote their resources to providing ready-made employees, while at the same time…resisting paying the taxes that support public education.” The collective effect of these rhetorical moves is to absolve the department of all responsibility for addressing the real problems the university is facing.

By ignoring the scholarship of teaching, the department missed an opportunity to engage the MOOC question in a different way. Rather than thinking of MOOCs as products to be bought or rejected, they could have approached them as experiments in teaching methods that can be validated, refuted, or refined through the collective efforts of a scholarly community. Researchers collaborate across university boundaries all the time. The same can be true in the scholarship of teaching. The faculty could have demanded access to the edX data and the freedom to adjust the course design. The letter authors seem deeply invested in positioning the edX course as something that is locked down from a third-party commercial vendor. But in reality, the edX course is developed by a faculty member and provided by a university-based non-profit entity. Perhaps the department felt that there wasn’t sufficient opportunity in this particular course design to make a request to have a collaboration worthwhile. But their rhetoric gives no indication that there is any room for such exploration under any circumstances, or indeed that the department has anything to learn about use of educational technology that could lead to either improved outcomes or lower costs.

Equally disturbing is the tendency in both letters to dismiss the fiscal crisis as something caused solely by greedy capitalists. It’s worth requoting the earlier referenced comment from the philosophy department letter here:

Industry is demanding that public universities devote their resources to providing ready-made employees, while at the same time they are resisting paying the taxes that support public education.

To begin with, “industry” isn’t alone in demanding that public universities devote their resources to producing employable graduates. Students and their parents are asking for it too, as are individual human taxpayers. On this last point, I am not a Californian, but I understand that individual human taxpayers have an unusually direct say regarding tax rates in the state of California. The purpose of education as a public good is a serious and complicated question that deserves more careful treatment from people who should know better.

Nor are taxes the only issue. While it is true that there has been progressive defunding of public colleges and universities in the United States, it is also true that tuition costs have been rising dramatically across the country in private as well as public schools. And it is true that the public colleges and universities in California in particular are struggling with unanticipated swelling enrollments as they strive to meet the as-yet-unfulfilled moral imperative of universal access to education. Given all of this, it is not a morally defensible position to simply point the finger at the rich guys and say, “It’s their fault. Make them fix it.” To the degree that course redesign can positively impact student access to education, faculty have a moral obligation to be leading the charge. And from a strategic perspective, they are more likely to prevent dumb ideas—such as gutting quality residential education in favor of least-common-denominator, video-driven xMOOCs—from taking hold.

But perhaps the worst aspect of the simplistic finger pointing is the way in which it pollutes the civic discourse. It encourages individual stakeholders to harden into an “us vs. them” position that reduces the likelihood of citizens coming together to solve real, hard problems that are deeply intwined with issues of social justice. Here’s an example of a comment made on this blog in response to a post about the California SB 520 bill:

Remember that when the Nazis led the people into the gas chamber they told them that it was a refreshing shower after a long train ride. Do not be fooled! This sweet sounding bill is the gas chamber of good education in California. Once we are in the questions will be pointless. As the pellets drop we will realize we should have questioned things sooner.

Setting aside the fact that the only justifiable use of genocide as an analogy is when talking about another genocide, this kind of rhetoric is enormously damaging to the possibility of a productive dialectic regarding how to solve the very real and complicated problems that our system of higher education faces, including both the need to increase access and the complexities of funding that imperative. And, sadly, this comment was written by a member of the SJSU philosophy department.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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10 Responses to Political Philosophy

  1. Michael, very thoughtful contribution.Thank you. I agree with you that change will happen and we want a constructive path to introduce and test technology enhanced teaching solutions in order to reduce costs and improve education outcomes.

  2. Excellent post, Michael. I’ve found there is often a reflexive tendency in academia, among otherwise very smart people, to demonize/marginalize for-profit companies and view them as greedy predators. Now that view may well often be true, but nonetheless I agree that such rhetoric can have a negative effect on constructive discussion about shared goals between all sides in the educational ecosystem–university administrators, faculty, non-profit organizations, and for-profit corporations alike. I believe that even the largest of educational-sector companies are filled with people who desperately want to create better products and services that help produce better outcomes for students (and faculty and administrators).

  3. Peter Hess says:

    Hi Michael,

    I agree that this is a balanced, thoughtful and constructive contribution to an important – and possibly urgent – conversation. Thanks for that. A few comments:

    Central to your argument, and to important decisions being made right now, is your comment that: “Rather than thinking of MOOCs as products to be bought or rejected, they could have approached them as experiments in teaching methods that can be validated, refuted, or refined through the collective efforts of a scholarly community.” While this perspective was missing from the SJSU Philosophy Faculty statement, it also is often absent from those who view MOOCs and related technology not just as a cure for what ails higher education, but as the answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”. Tom Freidman pops immediately to mind, and he stands for many others in the breathless commentariat. More importantly, I fear this cautious perspective is lacking among many decision makers, who might (or might not) include: the SJSU administration; college presidents; boards of directors/regents/governors of state and private institutions; state legislators; governors, members of congress; functionaries in the Department of Education, etc. Against this roar, the whisper from the SJSU Philosophy department could be viewed as a refreshing counterpoint.

    My second point is shorter, and more personal. The phrase “course redesign” has a sort of Orwellian ring to me. I hear it as overly broad, condescending, and vaguely threatening.


  4. Thanks for the kind words, all.

    Peter, I hope I have been clear, both at the beginning of this post and elsewhere, that I am in now way suggesting that the hype should go unanswered or that those doing the hyping should be left unaccountable. But faculty have to decide how to respond. Simply pointing the finger at others while ignoring both real problems and potential solutions, which the SJSU philosophy department letter seems to do, is neither responsible nor smart. Educators need to lead.

    Regarding the emotional resonances of the phrase “course redesign,” this gets at the heart of the difficult cultural change that I believe faculty are going to need to embrace in order to provide that leadership. Right now, course designs are typically seen as being deeply personal. In some ways, that is and always will be appropriate. But in other ways, particularly for core courses that many students must take to acquire baseline knowledge and skills, faculty are going to have to come to terms with the notion that course design for those courses may be a collective endeavor—and that, in fact, collaborating on improved course design is something that good teacher/scholars do as a core part of their profession.

    The challenges that we face in terms of improving quality, affordability, and scale of access are too big in these courses to be met by the model of individual instructors designing one-off courses without the benefit of any training or research into effective course designs. These core, high-demand courses (which is by no means all courses) are going to be team-designed in one way or another, and in some places they already have been to some degree for some time. Whether course redesign is something that happens to faculty or by and with them is largely up to the faculty and what they choose to fight for. Team-designed courses can (and should) still be customizable by individual faculty to meet local needs and build on the instructor’s individual strengths, particularly in cases where faculty have received some real education in pedagogy and understand the design principles behind the courses that they are customizing. That kind of design flexibility doesn’t exist in today’s MOOCs, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t in the design of tomorrow’s offerings. And that is the fight that I wish SJSU’s philosophy department had picked.

  5. Peter Hess says:

    Re Course Redesign:
    First, after submitting my comment about course redesign, I had regrets about the way I phrased it, but you got the point nonetheless. I don’t disagree with what you say, and your reply to my comment helped me understand better what you were getting at. Still, given that many faculty members are understandably anxious about this major pedagogical restructuring, the way it’s presented will matter at an emotional level. That is where I think the phrase “course redesign” falls short, though I don’t have a better one to suggest, and it may not be possible to find such. Ideally you’d want a phrase that turns on a light bulb rather than one that feels like a bucket of ice water.

  6. Fair point. I’ll have to think about the terminology some more. My first instinct is to just call it “course design.” Maybe it’s the “re-” part that feels punitive or remedial. And while many courses are crafted, most are not designed in the sense that we’re talking about here. But I also want to check to see whether the “learning design” folks consider that term to be appropriate at the level of granularity of a full course.

  7. George Station says:

    Michael, I may be a bit inured to the term “course redesign” but it seemed proper in the context of NCAT, which is how you brought it up. Across Cal State many of us picked up on NCAT’s twin mission in the mid-’00s to “improve student learning outcomes and reduce the cost of higher education.” Some variant of that appeared as two bullets in a thousand PowerPoints of the era. Then, as now, the trick was to focus people’s minds on the first aspect and not just the second. Now, we talk about affordability and scale and quality, and the trick is still to get people to focus on quality, which I pray will be connected to student learning when we get less fuzzy about it.

    But “course redesign” has a history and not everyone is into NCAT’s approach. If it rankles, maybe something like “learning design” is better. Please keep us posted on that.

    P.S. FYI, I mentioned earlier over at Phil’s G+ that Peter’s first comment here about perspective was exceedingly helpful.

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