Self Study

I’m faced with a bit of a gap as junior year classes wrap up and senior year ones start, so no newsletter this week.

While next week’s issue will feature a review of Coursera’s just-completed Mathematical Philosophy course, I’d like to take a brief look today at my experience trying to self-curate a course – an experiment involving learning from disparate resources I pulled together (rather than relying on a MOOC provider or other entity to do this organizational work for me).

Curation has come up previously at Degree of Freedom, mostly in the context of exploring classes offered by, an organization which draws material from multiple open sources to create their courses.  This review (written after completing’s course on Existentialist philosophy) talks about the plusses and minuses associated with this teaching/learning strategy (vs. the more formal course packaging of a MOOC).  And on the whole, my only major objection to this approach is that more people don’t try it.

Given the need for additional intermediate-to-advanced philosophy courses to complete my major, I tried to find a course that focused on Immanuel Kant, specifically on his Critique of Pure Reason (especially since most of the modern philosophers I’ve been studying seem in one way or another to be in dialog with that essay).  And absent a formal online class on the subject, I decided to take a stab at self curating one.

The original plan was to start with a syllabus and reading list drawn from MIT’s Open Courseware Initiative for a course on Kant and the Critique that ran in 2005.  And since that site only included lecture notes and not recorded lectures, I tapped into this series of Oxford talks as my professor-driven guided tour of the subject.

On the plus side, the Oxford material turned out to include some of the best lectures I’ve ever listened to.  But given that these lectures didn’t match up with the MIT syllabus, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time trying to connect this lecture with that reading assignment.

The problem was compounded by the fact that the MIT course really relied on sitting in the original class.  To take one example, readings for early lectures in the MIT class focused both on Kant’s Critique and on secondary-source criticisms of that Critique.  But lacking a strong enough foundation regarding the Critique itself (something I couldn’t gain by just reading a few pages of lecture notes), I found myself reading criticisms I didn’t have the grounding to appreciate.

After a while, I ended up abandoning the MIT syllabus as a course structure and instead used the Oxford lectures as my focal point, reading sections of the Critique as well as chapters from Gardner’s Guidebook to Kant (from the MIT reading list) to guide me through this study.  And given the difficulty of the material, I ended up listening to each Oxford lecture twice, as well as supplementing these talks with episodes on Kantian epistemology from the popular philosophy podcasts Philosophy Bites and Partially Examined Life.

So what did this all add up to?

Well given that an original goal was to see if Scott Young’s MIT Challenge strategy could work for a non-science/technology subject, I suppose I could declare that part of the experiment a failure (or – keeping with the spirit of scientific inquiry – having delivered a negative result).

But given that Scott used exams as his measurement tool for whether or not he had completed an MIT Challenge course successfully, the fact that I have ready answers to the essay questions from the original MIT Kant course (even if I haven’t written essays – at least not yet – since I don’t have anyone to grade them) seems to indicate that my ad hoc strategy did pay off in terms of actual learning.

Now I am planning to give myself a full-course credit for this effort, especially since the amount of work involved with self study on the subject far surpassed what’s been asked of me in many of my MOOC classes.  But the bigger-picture question remains of whether or not self-curation is a viable alternative/supplement to either MOOCs or traditional college classes.

Like that Existentialism course, my self-curated Kant course felt a bit free floating, especially without a single professorial voice to anchor the “class.”

It may just be that – having studied under professors in every other course I’ve ever taken – I’m more dependent on such a guiding hand than others (especially cMOOC fans) might be.  And given that many colleges actually encourage (and give credit for) independent study, I’m not ready to abandon this strategy, even if it has so far been somewhat disorienting.

Which is why I’ve decided to repeat this experiment my senior year with a self-curated curriculum on Pragmatism, a school of philosophy I seem to be drawn towards, but one which lacks any online classes in which to enroll.

And so this sub-experiment of the overall Degree of Freedom experiment within the greater MOOC experiment will continue.  And I can only hope that those who helped articulate the scientific method (including Kant) would be pleased.

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3 Responses to Self Study

  1. Paul Morris October 7, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

    Another interesting post. This highlights what should have been apparent anyway, that availability of resources is a primary driver in curated courses (whether self-curated or prepared by the likes of our friends at A reading list and some partial lecture notes don’t constitute a solid foundation on which to build a course while a decent set of lecture videos (or podcasts) can often form the backbone on which the rest of a course can hang. Similarly, a comprehensive open source text book may be all that is needed to structure a whole course.

    If I may also wander a little off-topic for a moment, you commented: ‘that Existentialism course… felt a bit free floating, especially without a single professorial voice to anchor the “class.”’. This is a valid comment (so far as it applies to Saylor) but one which they may be addressing. From their own blog postings and discussions it seems they are actively reworking their courses to make them more immersive (this is also why many of the incomplete philosophy courses have fallen off the radar) with more interactive assessments and (if they take up my suggestions) far more use of framing text which will allow for the course designer’s ‘voice’ to be more clearly heard. I’ve also suggested that they extend the practice current in their professional development courses of including short video introductions to each unit from the professors who designed the courses.

    • James April 1, 2015 at 8:15 pm #

      I’ll tell you right now that Saylor is a complete waste of time. Any certificates already earned don’t show up now since they changed their platform. The move to a new platform and new type of certificate negates everything you have done no matter how many courses you have completed. This is crazy and very hard to navigate. Either they fix their site or they disappear. Would that matter? Complete waste of time. Go to Coursera or EdX instead. I bet even Paul Morris posting here now has no certificates. Saylor’s rating has gone from good to poor, imo.

      • Manu Mitra September 1, 2016 at 4:49 pm #

        Any source or url for saying “Saylor’s rating has gone from good to poor, imo.” ?

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