POOCs Without PAWs (Philosophy Open Online Courses Without PAy Wall Shit), and Why the Internet Might Be a Primary Vehicle for Real Liberal Arts Education and Real Philosophy.

Z:  Recently I’ve been thinking lots about how a real liberal arts education—i.e., a liberal arts education that hasn’t run into the neo-conservative cultural cul de sac and nihilist abyss of what William Deresiewicz so aptly calls the “neo-liberal arts,” and is aimed at Heavy Duty Enlightenment, not Enlightenment Lite-might be really possible, about real philosophy outside professional philosophy, and also about whether the internet might be a primary vehicle for both.

And in that connection, I found this site, which has quite a few high-quality YouTube-style video philosophy open online courses (POOCs) on it–e.g., an intro-level philosophy of mind course by John Campbell, sponsored by UC Berkeley–that SEEM to be totally free and without hidden pay wall shit.

Prima facie, that looked pretty good.

But beyond first impressions, I started thinking more critically. And very quickly came up with four basic objections to POOCs:

1. They’re effective devices for the Professional Academic State to phase out, fire, and thereby rid itself of bolshy, exploited adjuncts, having sucked them dry already, and so reduce the faculty complement to a privileged few smiley-faced, “model prisoner”-type, highly-paid TT faculty + IT consultants + super-highly-paid administrators.

2. They frequently contain hidden pay walls, and thus yet another opportunity for the Professional Academic State to make lots of easy money.

3. Even if there are no hidden pay walls, they’re used by big ass private or public universities as “gate-way” mind-drugs hooking people on the real shit (“Oh god, Berkeley, Yale, MIT, etc., etc., what could be better on this Earth than that!”).

and advertising gimmicks (like “one year free! and then pay after that once you’re totally hooked”),

and so even through there’s not a hidden pay wall, they’re basically supporting or promoting the Professional Academic State and Enlightenment Lite.

4. Very few people actually manage ever to finish one one of these courses, because they very quickly run out of time and energy, there’s no personal interaction with teachers or other students to keep them focused and engaged, and of course there’s no extrinsic instrumental economic incentive and/or official course-credit incentive to hang in there, do the required coursework (if any), and complete the course.

L_E: My impression is that there are a lot of good online courses out there, specially on Youtube and iTunes U. They are very similar in format to the one by John Campbell that you mentioned. The biggest drawback is that in most of them you don’t get any course certificate, and this I think is one of the reasons that makes people give up on the way. In any case, there is an ongoing discussion about online courses here that you might find interesting.

In my experience, your worry 4 about POOCs is still a big part of the problem. I think that having no personal commitment to courses makes it easier for people to drop out along the way.For example, I started following voluntarily a few courses on cognitive science a couple years ago, but I dropped after a few weeks because there was no personal commitment and the whole enterprise seemed too impersonal.

However, my suspicion is that this kind of difficulty owes to my cultural background in which education is seen as a thing that happens inside the classroom. And I also see some reasons to believe that things will change, since technologies change a lot every year and kids are now being raised in a culture that is entirely dependent on those technologies. I’m always noting this by looking at some of my young cousins (who are under 15) and they seem to have some kind of “natural” grasp of how to communicate with others online, which usually takes me lots of time to develop (specially in those new smartphones and fancy applications).

Anyway, when I think about the Internet as a possible primary vehicle for real liberal arts education or real philosophy, I’m not really thinking about online courses specifically, but about the idea that given the right kind of instruction, the Internet can be a powerful educational tool that virtually everyone has access to.

What I mean is that you can connect with groups of like-minded people that you wouldn’t otherwise because of geographical limitations*, you can learn almost any language for free, access books and/or papers that a few years ago would require a lot of money or being linked to a higher-education institution, watch almost any movie, etc. The big problem with this is that conceiving education in this way still requires a great amount of self-discipline that is hard to develop.

*This reddit forum seems very interesting, since there is a section for almost everything, including philosophy.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that people still have to realize that they don’t have to pay insanely expensive fees to some bureaucratic institution in order to have the kind of relevant education that would make them think for themselves. But once enough people realize this (that is, that they don’t need to go to some Harvard or Yale to be smart), then I think there will be some hope to fight against the problems that you discuss on APP. The reason is that in this scenario the individual is responsible for his own education, and the kind of oppressive forces generated by the structure of academia simply lose their force.

To conclude, this sounds very idealistic, but I think that at the present moment we have the right kind of instruments to start changing things, but we still don’t completely understand the power of those instruments. Perhaps this is just a matter of time, i.e., until new generations who are educated in a world in which the Internet and relevant technologies are “natural” come to realize that things can be different.