MOOCs and Utilitarianism

Given that I’m taking a wide range of courses meant to be useful not just for edification but for life, I like to occasionally look at the topic of free learning through the lens of one of the subjects I’m studying.

A couple of weeks back, I went over some economics questions regarding MOOCs using some of the principles learned in Coursera’s Property and Liability course taught by Wesleyan’s Professor Richard Adelstein. And today, I’d like to turn to philosophy, particularly the Utilitarian philosophy that kicked off Michael Sandel’s popular edX class in Justice.

Jeremy Benthem and John Stuart Mill (the fathers of Utilitarianism) have actually made appearances (either individually or jointly) in many of the courses I have taken this year (including the aforementioned Property class).  But in Sandel’s class, Utilitarianism (which defines justice as the “greatest good for the greatest number” with “good” defined as the maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain) served as a starting point against which other philosophies of morality could be contrasted.

Historically, there have always been ideas or movements that acted as foils (and sometimes punching bags) for big-name philosophers.  For Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, it was the Sophists (which, for Plato, included Protagoras who saw “man as the measure of all things”) that needed to be taken down a peg.  And in the Hellenistic era, the most stoical of Stoics and skeptical of Skeptics found common ground in ragging on the seemingly self-indulgent philosophy of Epicureanism.

In all of these cases, thinkers who had a stake in the existence of something beyond man (whether those were the unseen perfect forms of Plato and Socrates or the categorical imperative driving the moral reasoning of Immanuel Kant) couldn’t abide schools of thought that placed man and his pleasures at their center. And the Utilitarian notion that pleasures and pains could be toted up on an accountant’s ledger to arrive at moral decisions understandably bothered thinkers who were looking for something loftier as the basis of “the good.”

The trouble is (as the modern philosopher John Rawls pointed out) Utilitarianism is one of the most intuitive of philosophies since most of us live our lives by its principles.  Our choices of what to do each day (sometimes each hour) are directed towards maximizing our own pleasurable experiences (whether those be physical pleasures or the pleasures derived from hard work or companionship) and minimizing our pains (whether physical discomfort or frustrating or aggravating experiences at work or home).

And while it’s easy to point out the problems inherent in scaling up these personal experiences to create a set of rules that should guide society (which could be used to justify three stranded sailors eating a fourth in order to survive), I don’t recall Plato, Kant or Rawls being paraphrased at the climax of many Star Trek movies.

And getting back (finally) to the subject of this blog, what is the keystone argument underlying the claim that MOOCs represent “the good?”  It’s the claim that by allowing anyone with an Internet connection to access the finest teachers in the world, we are generating the greatest good (in the form of learning) for the largest number of learners.

After all, online learning is nothing new.  But when 100,000+ students signed up for this Harvard philosophy course or that Standard computer course, suddenly the combination of prestige names and huge numbers led to the intuitive claim that something important (and moral) must be happening if this many people were involved with an activity assumed to be virtuous (learning).

Critics of the MOOC movement have tried to deflate these quantitative arguments by pointing out the smaller numbers of those who actually complete MOOC classes.  But these arguments are easily countered by claims that MOOCs are still educating thousands of people who would otherwise not have access to courses of such quality (including the world’s poor).  And MOOC supporters can always argue that the solution to low retention is to find ways to motivate more students to complete what they start – not to abandon the MOOC experiment entirely.

More effective criticisms of MOOCs bypass these quantitative arguments entirely by opening up questions regarding the nature and purpose of college (and education generally).  These teleological critiques point out the importance of interpersonal connection between teacher and student (something pretty much absent in massive classes) or the “magic” that happens when young people gather together in a university setting to exchange ideas and share life experiences.  For if “college” is more about what happens outside a classroom than inside one, then MOOCs can only ever provide a fraction of what education really consists of.

As I mentioned in that previous discussion of economics, while Bentham’s Utilitarianism may continue to rankle philosophers, his ideas actually undergird the entire system of modern property rights (which are the cornerstone of our modern economy).  Which means that even if a teleological case can be effectively mounted against where we are going with online education, Utilitarian principles undergird both the philosophical arguments and economic dynamics propelling the movement forward.

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