Yes I Kant

It’s been a few months since I tried my hand at applying some of the subject matter I’ve been studying to issues arising out of the existence of massive open online courses.

I previously used course topics such as economics, utilitarianism and entropy as a springboard for discussion of meta-matters related to MOOCs, but today I’d like to take a crack at seeing what Immanuel Kant might have to say on our favorite subject.

Keep in mind that this analysis is based on that self-study program I just completed, which means it grows out of an undergraduate-level understanding of a philosophical giant who has supplied the topics for many a graduate dissertation over the centuries.  But since much of what Kant had to say has to do with how we humans come to perceive and know things, some Kant basics may provide insight into how we learn things as well.

Writing during an age when science (particularly Newtonian physics) was making incredible strides redefining our conception of the world, Kant tried to balance (or really synthesize) the thoughts of empiricists like Locke and Hume (who claimed our knowledge derived entirely from sense perception) and rationalists like René “I think therefore I am” Descartes who claimed that the only thing we could know for sure was the contents of our own minds.

Since both of these roads led to relativism (based on the assumption that we could never truly understand the real world, or “things in themselves”), Kant tried to determine what we could truly know and where such knowledge came from.  And while part of his mission was to scope out how we come to understand physical reality, another major goal was to determine what we can’t know (or can’t know for certainty), an exercise that would create boundaries around how much reason could be applied to metaphysical concepts (such as the existence of God).

His synthesis was a remarkable edifice that would take years to fully grasp.  But at its core (and relevant to this discussion) is the assumption that all of our knowledge derives from a combination of sense perception coupled with a human ability to organize and categorize (and thus make sense of what our senses perceive) that exists prior (or a priori) to that sense perception.

For instance, since our understanding that numbers are infinite could not be derived empirically (i.e., from counting), something other than perception must be behind the concept of infinity.  Similarly, Pythagoras didn’t discover that the sum of the square of the legs of a right triangle equaled the square of the hypotenuse by running around the ancient Greek world looking for right triangles, performing mathematical calculations on their sides, and looking for trends.  Rather, the work he did on geometric figures (object of his perception) was performed in his head by applying pre-existing notions of space and time to internal reproductions of perceived objects, generating new knowledge in the process.

While the above description barely does justice to Kant’s monumental edifice, it’s enough to give us a metaphor for a couple of issues intrinsic to MOOCs: learning and externality.

With regard to learning, the takeaway seems to be that no matter how much we fill a browser with fascinating and well-delivered lectures and demonstrations, this material still arrives to students as nothing more than a well-crafted set of sense perceptions.  Which means that a genuine understanding of what students learn (from MOOCs or anything else) must ultimately derive from what they do with that incoming manifold of sense data.

This may be why lessons that don’t give students the opportunity to put knowledge they obtain from classes to work don’t tend to deliver long-lasting results.  For only through assessment, writing and other exercises do students get the chance to take what they’ve perceived as sense data and build the internal mental constructs that lead to long-term understanding.

And with regard to externality, here I am simply referring to the challenges online learning has with balancing virtual and “real” reality.  This is an issue that comes up all the time when talking about what subjects online classes can’t possibly cover: things like scientific lab work or studio art that must involve doing things with real objects (test tubes, chemicals, paint, clay) that lose their “reality” when digitized and moved to the computer screen.

But as Kant points out, we aren’t just limited in our understanding of “things in themselves” when we take an online class.  For such “things in themselves” are beyond our understanding entirely, which is why we must be satisfied with what our minds construct out of sense data and a priori notions of things such as space and time to give us the closest thing we can get to “real” reality.

So if everything we know is built from something other than our perception of “genuine” things, why do we get so hung up if the sensory data that begins this process of understanding is allegedly “distorted” by moving it from the lab or studio to the computer screen?  After all, if our brains are already telling us that the thousands of visual images we perceive of a man growing larger as he moves towards us add up to single individual whose increase in size is just a result of how our visual perception of distance works, why can’t our minds fill in the gaps when looking at multiple 2D images of a sculpture during an online art class?

Since Kant was a scientist as well as a philosopher, and since his theories help build the foundation for how science works, perhaps we should put the ideas described above to a test.  Which is what we’ll do tomorrow when I talk to someone who taught one of those topics allegedly un-teachable in an online environment: collage.

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