In fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun, a research professor at Stanford, and Peter Norvig, the top scientist at Google, teamed up to develop and teach a free, online course on artificial intelligence. Their aim, as Norvig said in an impassioned and compelling TED talk, was to develop a course at least as good as, if not better than, the course they teach together at Stanford. They'd put the result online and make it available to everyone, for free.
Over a 160,000 students signed up. About half that many, he explains, participated in some way through to the end. And 20,000 finished the course.
This is an astonishing example of the way MOOCs — massively open online courses — may be able to transform education as we know it, changing it from the privilege of an elite into a shared commons that is open and free to everyone.
There are grounds for concern, though. Some of these came to the fore this week in an open letter from the San Jose State University philosophy department to Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor who offers a MOOC version of his famous class on justice. The letter, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, raises important issues about the use of MOOCs within traditional university settings. Part of the problem, they write, is the danger:
... that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.
And they notice that:
The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary — something out of a dystopian novel.
I agree. Colleges and universities are communities with their own local cultures, values and ways of doing things. In the face of budgetary pressure, how will these communities withstand the temptation to give up the hard work of making knowledge and, instead, just subscribe to courses being produced and packaged elsewhere?
One might object that MOOCs are no different from textbooks. What is a textbook, really, but a programmed course template, a whole course in a box? Have popular textbooks destroyed local learning communities and entrenched established hierarchies? No.
This is an important point and it brings out how complicated the issues are. So often with new technology we simply reenact old battles.
But maybe the comparison with textbooks breaks down. Textbooks are limited in ambition. They don't replace the whole curriculum; they give it a grounding. Good teachers use textbooks.
Will they come to use MOOCs the same way?
Or will administrators appeal to the existence of MOOCs as justification to make some of those good teachers redundant?
You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe