Lessons in social justice from MOOCs

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The Philosophy department at San Jose State University have written an open letter to Michael Sandel, a Harvard teacher of government and lauded lecturer. Why is this news? Because Sandel is the teacher of one of a massive open online course (MOOC), and the San Jose philosophers don’t want to use his materials in their courses. The New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education cover the story, and the Chronicle has published the open letter..

From the Times account:

The move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university, the letter said, We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice.
While expressing respect for Dr. Sandels scholarship and teaching, it also chided him, saying, Professors who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors, dismantle departments and provide a diminished education for student in public universities.

I basically agree with these philosophy professors. As their letter makes clear, these philosophers are already making extensive use of blended learning and online materials in their courses. They object to having their work outsourced. I would go further: They should not shirk their jobs to guarantee the quality of education for their students, and the accreditation of San Jose State depends on them doing that job properly.

But they use faulty arguments in their letter. If a department is so dysfunctional that it is endangered by some YouTube videos, it probably needs to be dismantled. And surely it is a perverted idea of “social justice” to demand that a professor stop providing a free public good, just because professors at other institutions feel threatened?

They would be better served to document the ways they advance learning, making it clear why those functions cannot be replaced wholesale by an online resource. As for my MOOC, I hope the materials will be reused as widely as possible.