Esprit de Course

Part of the professional test-design experience I’m trying to bring to MOOC development includes the generation of specific learning objectives (tied to overall course goals) that spell out exactly what students should know after being exposed to course materials such as lectures and reading.

This type of detailed breakdown will be familiar not just to assessment developers (who need to base test questions on discreet and measureable learning objectives), but to anyone who has been involved with competency-based education.  For learning objectives are really just competencies that can (and should) weave their way through every aspect of a course’s design – from information delivered to knowledge and skills evaluated.

As a multi-decade veteran of test and curriculum development, I strongly believe that such a systematic approach is the key to quality course design.  But as someone who spent 2013 taking MOOC classes from dozens of different professors, I can’t help but think that these mechanics – as important as they are – might miss a vital component of what makes a MOOC great.

To cite one example, what makes Michael Sandel’s Justice the blockbuster course that it is (whether it’s taught to Harvard students, edX enrollees, or groups of learners in Asia when Professor Sandel takes his show on the road)?  Certainly he’s mastered the ability to make complex philosophical ideas accessible to those with limited exposure to the likes of Kant and Rawls.  But I would posit that the thing which makes Justice a great course is that the professor is working through a challenging idea (whether the right should precede the good or vice versa) in public.

Translated into non-philosophical terms, if “the right” precedes “the good,” that means we should not be striving for an objective understanding of what constitutes “the good life” (i.e., virtue that transcends specific circumstances), but should instead try to maintain an open society in which people possessing different conceptions of the good can hash out their differences side by side.

To a large extent, this is the world we live in today and it’s hard to object to the benefits such a liberal (small-L) society provides in terms of tolerating a wide variety of opinions and norms.  But without a common understanding of what constitutes “the good,” might we find ourselves keeping vital discussion of specific virtues at arm’s length, all in the name of tolerance?  And what is tolerance if not a specific virtue that the tolerant society uses to limit how much other virtues are up for discussion?

I bring up this description of Sandel’s argument (one that underlies all his books and lectures, going back to his 1982 work Liberalism and the Limits of Justice) not to debate it, but to ask whether this key component of Justice (classroom- or MOOC-flavored) can be boiled down to discreet learning objectives that can be taught and assessed.  Or does it represent something else, a “spirit of the course” (or esprit de course) that touches on and informs everything the professor is trying to accomplish?

I can list other examples of this esprit de course in action.  For instance, when Michael Roth led us through The Modern and the Postmodern, he was clearly introducing students to a variety of thinkers, each of which taught things that could be learned and evaluated.  But Roth was also asking students to join him in a four-century journey during which the modern quest for the “really real” (i.e., the attempt to ground our understanding of reality in something of which we could be certain) gave way to a post-modern abandonment of such a hunt for certitude.

Similarly, is Greg Nagy’s concept of the Ancient Greek Hero an accepted norm within the study of classical literature, his own creation, or one of many competing theories which he embraces and weaves throughout his class?  It’s hard to conceive of this course absent this overarching framework, but does that framework lend itself to the kind of mechanical reductionism that informs competency-based learning?

During all the media merriment surrounding MOOCs in 2012 and 2013, there seemed to be an unanswered question over why these things were so popular, even when you take into account that the number of people really involved in most MOOCs number in the “mere” thousands (rather than hundreds of thousands).

Perhaps the fact that the world’s most prestigious colleges and universities were offering their best courses for free is enough to explain this excitement.  But I’d like to suggest that the thing that keeps thousands of people involved in a quality online class derives from a special something – an esprit de course – that makes a great course indecipherably unique.

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