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 Saylor.org, an organization which draws material from multiple open sources to create their courses. This review (written after completing Saylor.org’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 Saylor.org 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.