If you haven’t read the letter from the San Jose State (SJSU) Philosophy Department to Harvard’s Michael Sandel about his “Justice” MOOC through MIT and Harvard’s edX program, you really should. I think it might become a classic document in the history of the long, slow decline of American Higher Education. For one thing, it’s interesting because it may be the first sharp published criticism of someone who’s decided to teach a MOOC. [I've written about that here.] But it’s also the first serious public attention that I’ve seen given to what I’ve called the academic freedom crisis of the twenty-first century.
To summarize, the philosophers at San Jose State don’t want Sandel’s MOOC to be given for credit in their department or at their university. It’s not that they’re opposed to online instruction. It’s that they think they should be the ones doing the instructing, not a Harvard professor on tape through a computer. “In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience,” they write:
we believe that having a scholar teach and engage his or her own students in person is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students. Indeed, the videos of you lecturing to and interacting with your students is itself a compelling testament to the value of the in-person lecture/discussion.
The philosophers go on to note that the ability of a professor to control the content they provide is a fundamental part of what it means to be a college professor:
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’ needs and abilities.
To use the language of education technology, they do not want to be “unbundled.”
What makes this both an academic freedom and a shared governance issue is the response of the San Jose State administration. Queried by a New York Times reporter, the Provost there said exactly what faculty would hope to hear:
“All we ever did was let the deans know that these courses were available, and if they were interested in integrating any of the edX materials into their courses, they should let us know,” Dr. Junn said. “We’re never telling faculty what to use. They control the content of their courses.”
But then the other shoe drops:
Several philosophy professors, however, said that there was administrative pressure to offer the Justice course. Indeed, the department chairman, Peter J. Hadreas, said that administrators had now arranged to offer it through the English department, reinforcing his concerns that it would be taught by professors who are not trained in philosophy and would be especially reliant on the edX materials.
It is, of course, precisely this unbundling process – the separation of content provision from actual instruction – that makes moving a course on justice to the English Department possible. Should the SJSU Philosophy Department, or any other department, resist the MOOCification of higher education, their face-to-face students can simply be diverted away to other departments or (thanks to the wonders of the Internet) anywhere else in the world and the university will still make money! Offer enough cost incentives to take MOOCs instead of face-to-face classes and there may not be a single student left on campus before too long.
What does it mean to have a university without professors? Certainly it makes shared governance, the primary means of enforcing quality control upon methods of instruction, a thing of the past. Perhaps more importantly for society at large, what does it mean if future students everywhere get only one view of what justice means? Nobody is censoring anyone if you simply take away their listeners, but on cultural terms that result may be even more disturbing.