The High Production Quality/Low Cost Future of Philosophy Education?

Here are three trends in higher education:

  • To save money, more students are starting their post-high-school education at a community college, taking courses there for a while and then transferring with those credits to a more prestigious school from which they’ll end up getting their degree.
  • For convenience and now safety, more students are taking their college courses online.
  • Facing unprecendented pedagogical challenges from the fact that their competition for students’ attention is easy and constant access to an ever growing set of all of the world’s distractions (via the internet), professors are feeling a push to be more entertaining.

A relatively new education venture, Outlier, seems to take responding to these trends as its focus, offering attractively marketed, relatively inexpensive, online courses with transferable credits and high production values—and it has just launched an introductory philosophy course.

Outlier was created by Aaron Rasmussen, one of the co-founders of Masterclass, whose celebrity-led courses (Jeff Koons on art, Nancy Cartwright on voice acting, Margaret Atwood on creative writing, Timbaland on beatmaking, etc.) you might have seen advertised on Facebook, or perhaps even taken.

Outlier’s Introduction to Philosophy course is led by John Kaag, professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and author of, among other things, the recent popular philosophy books Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who We Are and Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life.

Joining Professor Kaag for the course are philosophers Anita Allen (University of Pennsylvania), Ann Cudd (University of Pittsburgh), Marya Schectman (University of Illinois, Chicago), Elís Miller Larsen (Harvard), and philosophy-minded psychologist Paul Bloom (Yale).

To see what I mean about marketing and production, check out the promotional video for the course:

The course costs $400—much less than a typical college course—and students who pass it will earn three potentially transferable credit hours through Outlier’s partnership with the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown (“potentially” because typically a course’s transferability is the decision of the destination school). Students who don’t pass the course will get their money back.

Rasmussen says that interest in the course has been strong, though it is too early in its launch to provide exact numbers. If they end up producing a second philosophy course, he says, it will probably be on logic.

What do developments like this course portend for higher education? Are they just another option to meet the varied demands of an increased customer base, beneficially adding to the range of educational offerings? Or are they part of what some have predicted will be big tech’s takeover of higher education, with drastic consolidations and other changes? Or…?

Discussion welcome.

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Barry Lam
3 years ago

Whether this works will completely depend on demand, the economic model only works if demand is very high. Their target now is clearly students who want to transfer credit, but It’s hard to know ahead of time if that will ultimately be their clientele, maybe hobbyist will turn out to be their ultimate customers. Whether institutions accept it will depend on how they evaluate and grade assignments. Will it be an army of Online TA’s, or automation? If it is TA’s, that will eat into revenue quickly. For my part, I think it’s good for philosophy that this course is out there, and that someone is sensitive to engagement and production for online courses. I would bet money though that it will not be as easy to sustain the Masterclass business model to actual college credit courses.

3 years ago

Looking at the website, one downside seems to be that the only graded component are exams (and I can’t figure out what kind of format, e.g., T/F, MC, short-answer, essay, etc.). First, that means there is no writing and, just as importantly, no feedback on writing. Second, data on the pedagogical worth of exams are, if I recall, not great. So, I have the worry that this is just a MOOC with exams. This isn’t to say one can’t learn something, but rather to flag a concern.

Sorry if I missed some information.

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

I’m skeptical about how consequential this or similar offerings will be for a few reasons:
1. The pandemic and its effects on higher ed proves that a lot of the hype about online classes generally was just that. Most community colleges that have went to all online formats have seen big enrollment declines and the reason for this is that it turns out that the market for online classes was much closer to saturation than anyone realized. Some students don’t have good enough internet connectivity to do online courses and many others have chosen not to do online classes because they judge them not to fit their needs as well as in person classes or just take them to be full stop inferior to in person offerings.
2. The price for this class is hardly as competitive as you make out. A 3 credit philosophy class at my own community college is somewhere in the neighborhood of $500. Slightly more expensive yes but in the same ballpark. I don’t have a complete breakdown by state but from what I can tell the cost per credit hour at Virginia community colleges and public universities tends to be a little higher than average so I’d bet many other community colleges and even some state universities are even more competitive with this class.
3. Community colleges have articulation agreements with four year institutions in their states and work hard to generally make sure their classes transfer. This class *may* transfer. You can find community classes that are *guaranteed to* transfer.
4. In general “star” faculty are much less of a draw for students than I think we academics, who have been so thoroughly conditioned by our respective caste systems, imagine. And given how marginal philosophy is to American culture philosophy fame almost certainly means less than fame in a field like history. Does any philosopher have the name recognition among the educated public much less undergraduates that say Eric Foner, Jill Lepore, or Claudio Saunt has?
5. The same goes for production values. There’s only so much you can do to make what is basically a dude talking to a room full of people or a camera sexy, exciting, and dynamic. I’ve typically found that my own students don’t focus on that kind of thing and everyone whose opinion I respect on teaching online has always told me that content is more important than a pretty bottle for the content. That’s not to say the content here is bad, but the good production values in themselves aren’t that important. (Take a look at Khan Academy’s barebones production values if you don’t believe me).
6. What’s the eligibility for financial aid here? How does Outlier handle financial aid? With what companies and institutions do they have partnerships? Many of my own students get at least part of their classes paid for by their work, state or local grants, or GI benefits. Could they do the same here? How hard would it be for them?
Anyway those are just my thoughts and I could well be wrong. But I do think everyone should have learned by this point to be a little critical about the grand claims that this or that big tech gewgaw WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING IN EDUCATION FOREVER!!!!

Benjamin Hale
3 years ago

My usual response to efforts like these is just to point out that, in a way, the same kind of argument could be made about books. All the content is there. It’s written down. Readers can access it without too much difficulty. It just takes time and perseverance.

Can books substitute for an actual in-person course? Perhaps, under the right conditions. But mostly, I’m not particularly worried about books taking over my classroom. (In fact, I’d welcome that!) But I’m not sure I’d think the reader was equipped enough with comprehension of the material. I’m also not sure I’d offer college credit for someone to read a bunch of books without the attendant pushback of University instruction.

Online videos are great — as supplements to philosophy. They can do a lot to get students interested in sometimes dense material. But really, there’s very little effective substitute for the conceptual friction and discursive pushback that’s characteristic of a truly engaging philosophy course. The same is probably true of other fields as well — chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology — but given the dialogical nature of philosophical reflection, it seems particularly true in philosophy.
3 years ago

Hello from the Outlier Student Support Team! Thank you for your comments. We want to clarify that students who enroll in our Philosophy course will receive a series of reading and writing assignments throughout the course. The written assignments help draft their final essay, which is assigned in place of a final exam.

All written assignments will be graded by evaluators holding at least a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy. The evaluators will use a rubric to determine a student’s grades on each written assignment. I hope this provides clarity on the structure of our Philosophy course. For more information about how assignments and assessments work for the Philosophy course, please refer to our article in our Help Center (link:

Our team has been working tirelessly to build a product that will make world-class education more equitable, more accessible, and change the way people define excellent education. We currently offer a scholarship for frontline workers who are staying on the job during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you have any other questions, please email us at [email protected].

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
3 years ago

The linked website claims that this course will result in credits offered from the University of Pittsburgh. If a student then chose to take this course and transfer the credit, the implication is that on the transcript, this course looks like any other intro philosophy course transferred from the University of Pittsburgh. The Outlier website appears to advertise that it does. Pittsburgh is one of the finest places to study philosophy, so I wonder what their faculty think about offering this course as a credit equivalent to the courses they offer. Does this course for example count equally as a Philosophy or humanities credit for students at the University of Pittsburgh? If so, it’s interesting that Pittsburgh would choose to discount or compete with its own courses in this way, given that this one can be taken for a small fraction of the $3500 plus that it normally costs to take a full tuition course there. As a contrasting example, the courses offered by our philosophy department are $705. Many students have access to significant financial assistance from the university or local scholarship programs, not only from federal financial aid programs, and most students have the latter sort of aid as well. I’m not sure what the average final cost of our course is, then, but this $400 course does not offer much greater financial accessibility to those finding it difficult to afford college. Meanwhile, our students will be in a class of 30 or less taught and evaluated by a regular professor in the department, no TAs. The class requirements are significantly more advanced and complex, and the professor is fully engaged with and caring for the specific academic goals and needs of the individual students. I have a high school senior right now applying to colleges, so the question of how much more a course that costs over $3,500, or $5000, is truly worth is vividly present to mind. However, it is not a close question whether one of our intro courses is preferable to a very large one in which she would watch beautifully produced video from a professor who does not know her and have very light work graded by TA. If this is the model big tech has for the future of education, I’m concerned only because it can be difficult for people to examine and weigh these “value propositions”, and one of the ways places like ours keep costs down is by having a limited marketing budget.