Graded Assignments in Philosophy MOOCs

Philosophy professors generally like to assign papers to students. The format of a paper  allows the student to exercise certain skills of careful exposition and argumentation in ways that quizzes and timed exams don’t. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) often do not include graded work—and certainly not graded papers. The massiveness and openness (inexpensiveness) of the courses makes the grading of papers uneconomical or otherwise unfeasible.

Now, MIT has announced that it will be offering a graded option for one of its popular philosophy MOOCs, Caspar Hare’s Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge, and Consciousness. For $300, students can take a “verified certificate” version of the course, which includes having papers graded and commented upon by the instructors. This is the first humanities MOOC at MIT to offer this option. (According to Ryan Doody, who assists Hare with course, previously the students were only able to earn points by answering multiple choice-type questions.)

Does anyone know if there are philosophy MOOCs elsewhere that include the writing and grading of papers?

In a column at Inside Higher Ed, Dan Butin (a dean and professor of education at Merrimack College) writes about the MIT course:

This is a fascinating development. By now it is crystal clear that MOOCs cannot be compared to traditional courses. Yes, they may replace and/or supplement existing courses, but they are fundamentally different. And that difference is exactly the kind of interactivity—of engagement, feedback, grading—that is at the heart of the give and take of deep learning in higher education. Without such engagement, MOOCs might as well be (and have been compared to) the correspondence courses of the 1800s or your local public radio or TV station. It’s just information transfer; not true knowledge development…

This is where MIT’s announcement enters the picture. Their solution—of using “professional philosophers”—solves the really important problem of the seeming lack of quality. This solution appears simple and obvious, but until recently it did not seem plausible to do so on the massive scale of MOOCs, not least because of the costs involved.

He then runs the numbers to show that on one modeling of its finances, the course stands to generate “a nice $100,000 in profit… which is the start of a really nice business model.”

That kind of talk may sound jarring to some, but the course does have to be at least financially sustainable in order to be offered over the long run. Sure, financially stability isn’t everything, and some might question the labor model that generates said financial stability, but it does seem like the course is a step towards figuring out how to use technology to provide quality education to people who might not otherwise have access to it.

Simmons Hall MIT

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