The San Jose State philosophy professors who recently spoke out against the school's embrace of a video version of a social justice class were right to worry about the boom in online learning and how it might harm their life's mission and their students' education.
After all, philosophy is all about raising the right questions and exploring the answers. And in fact, there is a rising buzz of professorial protest over what are broadly known by the moniker MOOCs, or massive open online courses.
Educators at Amherst and Duke have come out against the courses on their campuses. And some Harvard instructors have called for a committee (Harvard loves committees) to explore the school's participation with edX, a nonprofit online course producer and the company that provided the Harvard course that set off the SJSU professors.
But it would be a shame if the well-meaning professors' concerns derailed a movement toward wider use of online courses across the country.
Make no mistake: MOOCs are on a roll. Coursera, the Stanford-born online-course provider, recently announced a stunning rollout to 10 state university systems, serving 1.25 million students. They topped it off a few days later with news they'd also bagged the University of Chicago. And not a month goes by, it seems, without an announcement from fellow online course-makers edX and Udacity.
And here's the thing: Like any technology-based disrupter, it's not so much that the new idea itself will make the world a better or worse place. It's how the new idea is deployed that makes the difference. The massive course movement is hardly one-size fits all. In general, a series of online lectures conducted by a university professor is at the core. From there, anything goes. A student could work through an online course off-campus, relying on discussion forums and email to converse with classmates and instructors. The class might be "flipped," meaning students take in lectures online and then meet with a professor in a classroom where discussions, case studies and mentoring take place.
The San Jose State professors, who wrote an open letter detailing their concerns, argue that using courses developed outside the university and presented online by faculty from other campuses poses an existential threat. SJSU professors will no longer have control over course content. They will not be able to apply their personal experiences, research and knowledge to the material being presented. In short: Who needs them?
And they worry that the cash-strapped California State University system will see open courses as college on the cheap and adopt them not for the flexibility they can provide, but for the money they can save.
As I said, all valid concerns. We should keep a close eye on how these massive online courses are deployed. But I'll gently suggest that there is another way to look at this: Maybe the highest and best calling for open online courses is not to replace the traditional way of going to college. In fact, maybe it's not even to ham-handedly replace an on-campus classroom course with a virtual course. When I talked to Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng earlier this year, what excited him most about this new way of teaching and learning was the potential it held for those who left college before finishing their degrees.
"Hopefully, it will bring a lot of working adults back into the education system," he said. "There are working adults who don't have a college degree." Massive online courses could ultimately let them pick up their remaining credits without having to regularly make it to a class at a specific place and time.
And he talked about knowledge-hungry students in developing countries who lack access -- financial and geographical -- to higher education. None of which means Ng, an associate professor himself, isn't also excited about Coursera providing on-campus, online learning.
But rather than serve as a way to make professors less relevant, Ng described a system in which professors were more involved in teaching. Remember the flipped classroom idea? Daphne Koller, Ng's co-founder and a Stanford computer science professor, told me this week that that is exactly how she taught her most recent course.
"When they come into class, they have an open-ended discussion," she says. "Let's imagine you've got this problem. How do you go about solving it? It's much more interesting. Compare that to siting in an auditorium with 150 people listening to the same lecture."
The student/professor discussion is interactive and more personal. All of which makes the professor more important, not less. "The real value of attending a great university isn't just the content," Ng told me. It's the interaction with the person delivering that content.
I understand that Ng is the founder of a for-profit business who has a self-interest in spreading the gospel of massive online learning. And I realize that it's too early in the online course revolution to know whether the shift will play out more the way people like Ng and Koller see it, or more the way the San Jose State philosophy professors see it.
That's why, as the revolution rolls on, we'd be wise to listen to both.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.