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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