July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.
Recently, the philosophy department at San Jose State University enjoyed some notoriety in the media, by publishing an open letter criticizing Massively Open Online Courses. This is an issue that hits especially close to home for me, for several reasons. For one, in addition to my various other activities, I have been a member of the adjunct faculty in the philosophy department at SJSU since 2011. Secondly, it so happens that I now also teach philosophy in an online environment through a different institution, although not in a MOOC setting. For those who are not familiar with MOOC-s in general, and this ‘controversy’ in particular, here’s an introduction on the NPR site. The latest developments are summarized in this article at The Chronicle of Higher Education site.
So what is all the fuss about?
The various players involved will each have their own take on this; some will speak of greater efficiency and accessibility, while others will argue that diversity and critical thinking are jeopardized, and still others will emphasize what appears to be contradictory financial incentives involved in a dispute between traditional faculty and private business interests responsible for implementing online delivery systems.
I believe the meaning of ‘education’ is at stake.
What is education? Is it the dissemination of information? Is it the memorization of formulas? Is it the indoctrination of certain viewpoints? Is it preparation for a job? Or is it something that cannot be easily earned and measured? Is it something more in the nature of a process that transforms the person, rather than something easily quantified by standardized exams? Is it all of the above, and more?
The goal of education should be to increase wisdom, not merely knowledge. If knowledge is the capacity to recall information, then wisdom is the ability apply knowledge and to effectively reason through unfamiliar, novel situations. Technology can certainly aid in the quick and relatively cheap dissemination of information, but it cannot thereby cultivate wisdom. This is all the more problematic, because while our culture is heavily invested in the race toward more knowledge, we seem to increasingly do so at the expense of wisdom. Our educational institutions reflect this trend, by operating more on market principles where education (and knowledge) becomes a commodity to be purchased by consumers, rather than focusing on the nurturing of wisdom, which requires patience, practice, and careful guidance to develop. In our relentless focus on the “how” we forget to ask “why?” In our educational institutions, we have forgotten that wisdom and virtue are closely related; by neglecting the former, we have allowed the latter to wither in our culture.
Of course, I do not mean to suggest that greater availability of information is a bad thing. Nor am I opposed to MOOC-s in all cases, or any of the myriad of other wonders of technology that are going to revolutionize education, or so we are told. I am merely suggesting that trends that have championed such methods reflect societal values that deserve a second look. Those who trumpet the benefits of technology tend to gloss over the necessity of the human element.
I am reminded of my initial experience in college. My only motivation for college at that time was to have the opportunity to compete in collegiate wrestling. After an unfortunate injury ended my athletic career in that sport, I dropped out of college. Some time thereafter, I came across a course at SJSU through Open University. It was Political and Social Philosophy, taught in a small group format, with an excellent instructor and discussions that gave me the opportunity and the motivation to become fully engaged with the material.
I was hooked.
I returned to college, and completed my undergraduate degree in philosophy. In doing so, I became the first in my family to graduate from college. I later went on to earn my Juris Doctor degree, as well as a Master’s in philosophy. I can honestly say that had it not been for that first course I took through Open University, I would probably never have completed my college education.
Personal anecdotes aside, I will gladly acknowledge that online delivery methods can make materials more accessible, at a lower cost, than a traditional classroom setting. This may be appropriate in some cases, for certain limited purposes. But, if the focus of education is the cultivation of wisdom, this will never be a substitute for effective personal guidance by knowledgeable educators. As much as our interconnected world has provided a platform to easily communicate across the globe, social networks and the internet have also become unregulated pulpits for misinformation, producing pockets of intolerant true believers demarcated not by geographic boundaries, but united by confirmation bias.
Let us remember the value of education, and let us focus on wisdom, with a hope for developing virtue. Let us not be swayed by grandiose promises and one-size-fits all, simple solutions to complex problems. Let us have the humility to realize that for all the benefits of technology, many of our most important pursuits will remain difficult and time consuming. And let us remember to ask “why?” not just “how?”