In Search Of Universal Truths

Kevin Hartnett traces a line from today’s massive open online courses (MOOCs) controversies to the dawn of education by textbook:

Before textbooks, learning typically happened through the dialogic method—exchanges between students and professors. But beginning in the 18th-century, scholars began redacting blocks of information into standardized books that laid out content in logical, easily digestible fashion. The goal of the textbook, according to one 18th-century French pedagogue, was to “make all truths universally familiar, and spare [ourselves] any useless effort in learning.”

The modern day textbook wars have taught us, of course, that one man’s universal truth can be another man’s heresy. [Scholar Hansun] Hsiung explains that these types of concerns were present with textbooks from the start. 18th-century Europeans worried about who had the authority to write textbooks and, as textbooks took hold, there was a backlash against the idea that a real education could take place through a book. In this way, textbooks spawned similar concerns to the ones we grapple with around MOOCs— that it’s dangerous to have a single, massively popular online course dominate the way a particular subject is taught, and that there’s only so much learning that can take place through a computer.

A couple weeks ago, Nathan Heller reported from inside the academy on views towards MOOCs:

To [historian Peter K. Bol], MOOCs look like a victory for open-access scholarship. “The question for us here was: How do you take what you’re teaching to a very small group and make it accessible to a large group?” Bol told me late one morning in his office, a kind of paper jungle piled with journals, manuscripts, and books. “Unless I’m writing popular books, I’m not reaching those people. I’m not telling them stuff that I’ve worked hard to try to understand.”

Others, like my ex-boyfriend Andy Conway at Princeton, are suddenly Internet stars – because they’re good at teaching. But not everyone is enthused:

In mid-April, the faculty at Amherst voted against joining a MOOC program. Two weeks ago, the philosophy department at San José State wrote an open letter of protest to Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard professor whose flagship college course, Justice, became JusticeX, a MOOC, this spring. “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves,” the letter said. The philosophers worried that the course would make the San José State professor at the head of the classroom nothing more than “a glorified teaching assistant.” They wrote, “The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary.”

Then create and teach a better one.