One of the most popular posts in the history of this blog is also one of its worst. I published “Real college classes have writing assignments and required reading” on April 1st of this year. It got mentioned in Aaron Bady’s Sunday Reading twice over two separate weeks. Then it got picked up by WordPress’ “Freshly Pressed,” which makes it the reason you’re seeing that blue rectangle in the top right-hand corner of this page. I’ve been picking up scores of blog followers through WordPress ever since. Granted, many of them are fake accounts, but I know that at least some of you are real as you actually “like” posts and leave comments.
The problem with that post lay in its evidence. To argue that MOOCs aren’t real college courses, I read Dan Ariely’s syllabus at Coursera. Since I ended up looking in the wrong place for the reading assignments, I issued a correction at the bottom. Then I picked up a tweet from everybody’s favorite intellectual history grad student, L.D. Burnett, who quoted this from the course description of an edX philosophy MOOC out of UT-Austin: “While not formally required, prior to or during the course, you might wish to read the book.”
It turns out that what L.D. found was only the prerequisites for the course, not the readings for the course itself. This led to a sarcastic reply from “Mike H” in the comments to that post:
Your use of UT’s edX MOOC as an example of how little reading is required seems very odd as the course is not yet available so there is no way of knowing how much reading is required or not required in the course….MOOC’s have their problems no need to create fictional ones.
In my update to that post, I noted that both the history MOOCs I’d been involved with had no required reading, but the damage had already been done.
Well guess what? It it turns out that while L.D.’s analysis of that Philosophy MOOC was premature, it was also 100% accurate. Yes, despite earlier claims, I have signed up for another MOOC that I will never finish: Ideas of the Twentieth Century at UT-Austin, which starts today. Yes, I wanted to see how edX worked, but I also wanted to check out their actual syllabus, which required my signing up. [This is open learning?]
Here’s what part of the many course pages there says with respect to the readings:
While these readings are not required to complete the course, they are introduced in the lessons and available to you as suggested, optional readings, should a student want to dig deeper into the course topics.
The thinking here is easy to understand. Make what we can available to interested students and some people can see the material firsthand. Why scare off students with reading? Besides, isn’t some learning better than none at all?
I’d be much more friendly with respect to to this line of argument if it weren’t for the fact that edX is pushing philosophy certificates. No, edX hasn’t made a million dollars in revenue from pushing these things…yet. This is from the general description of their certificate program:
All edX courses are rigorous and successful completion is a real accomplishment. EdX students have used Certificates of Achievement on university or job applications, or with their employers to showcase their abilities. Today, certificates of achievement are free. This may change in the future to help cover our costs.
Rigorous? Real college philosophy classes have required reading, not to mention writing assignments graded by people who are trained in teaching students how to write (rather than by other students). Or to make a long story short, this is another way of saying that that old sloppy post of mine may not have had all its ducks in a row, but the argument in it remains just as true and just as relevant as it was last April.