(Higher) Education

A Better Kind of MOOC

Been thinking for a while about how to innovate on the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Here are the problems MOOCs face: 

  • Despite having high quality content that is in great demand, virtually no one watches a MOOC past the first two or three lectures.
  • MOOCs are often visually annoying. A camera pointed at a professor's face. We get all the downsides of classroom learning, with none of the upsides.
  • MOOCs too often fail to communicate the sort of excitement of learning that comes with being surrounded by peers who are learning the same material as you are at the same time. MOOCs are insufficiently social.

I'm still thinking about how it makes sense to try and hack the MOOC. But in the meantime, I'm trying out a few things on the God and the Good Life class that I may try to work into a MOOC (if I ever try to make one). One of them is just the format of the class syllabus / website (they are the same thing). It's laid out simply. Students (or anyone online really) can just visit the site, click the topic they want to think about, and do all the readings and assignments. We're also trying to get the course blog to be more active -- to be a social space for those who may be following along and doing the readings. One major thing was missing, though: content. That is, until now! Below is a video we put together for lecture #1 of course content (title: Learn to Live Well). I'm hoping to do this for each of the courses. Links will be available the page for each of the lecture days (example). Enjoy!


Professor Meghan Sullivan, "The good life is roughly this big."  

My Philosophy of Grading

If I had to grade our grading practices in higher-ed generally, we would not get an A+... 

If I had to grade our grading practices in higher-ed generally, we would not get an A+... 

I think a lot about grading and why we -- as educators -- even do it. I've come up with some norms of grading -- a sort of "philosophy of grading" -- that I always use to come up with specific grading practices. I thought I'd post it here, since I think grading is one of the things that we, college educators, are the absolute worst at. Feel free to post thoughts or comment with your own additional norms!

  • Students should be assessed only on the performance of activities or the production of work that demonstrate growth or mastery of the skills, competencies, and objectives identified in the course objectives. For instance: it makes sense to evaluate whether or not a student’s paper includes strong arguments, since learning how to argue is a core objective of most philosophy courses. It does not make sense to assess a student’s paper for grammatical errors, since we are not focusing on making them better technical writers. If a paper is so error-riddled that it makes the argument difficult to follow, you might choose to evaluate their grammar insofar as it detracts from their argumentative skills, but you should never subtract points simply because a student’s writing style or use of grammar is not up to your own standards (or even the stands of professional writing). Likewise, you should never assign a grade to students simply for showing up (since being in a particular location at a particular time is not a skill we are aiming to cultivate in this course). However, you may assign points based on how well students participate or engage in discussion. Since students who aren’t in discussion cannot participate, they will receive no points if they fail to show up. Thus, “attendance” is counted, but only insofar as being present is a necessary condition on the performance of activities or the exercise of skills or competencies that we are actually aiming to cultivate.


  • Every assessment needs to communicate information to students that they will find useful: (a) in approaching future assignments in the course, (b) in evaluating or assessing themselves with respect to the course objectives of the course, or (c) in becoming better students, philosophers, or persons. That is to say: grades should not feel random, or be given without any explanation. Because personalizing feedback is often tedious (and tends to be ignored by students), we recommend creating detailed rubrics that you will use to guide your grading. It is most helpful to provide these rubrics to students at the same time that the assignment is given. You can then use the rubric to structure your grading, and provide it to your students along with their grade breakdown, to show them where and why they lost (or gained) points. This is what a rubric looks like:


    Your rubrics should be tailored to the objectives of the course you’re TAing for. You may choose to write more constructive descriptions than those that appear in this sample rubric. For instance: “generally unclear, unfocused” is fairly vague as a description of how a paper that “needs improvement” vis-a-vis “Structure and style.” Instead, consider more concrete descriptions, like “Support for the main claim could have been more focused and better organized,” or “The author considers some strong objections, but fails to adequately respond -- or adequately responds to several weaker objections.” Feel free to share your rubrics with others who are TAing the same course!


    • Students need to know how to receive personalized feedback on assignments if they desire it. Moreover, the process for receiving such feedback should not be complicated or difficult for the student. It must be clear when and where your office hours are -- but you should also strive to figure out whether there are more expedient and accessible ways for your students to receive personalized feedback. Can you meet for 5 minutes right after class? Can you have them submit an early draft of an assignment via email and comment on it via Google docs? Does the student need to set up an appointment at Starbucks outside of your regular meeting time?


    • Whenever possible, assessment should be framed as a way for educators and students to collaborate on their shared objectives (I.e. The objectives of the course or the particular assignment), rather than “top-down” or “expert” evaluation on students, their work, or their performance.


    • Under no circumstances should a student be evaluated on traits, characteristics, or abilities that are outside of his or her control. Grading, and assessment more generally, are meant to be ways of communicating with students about their performance in the course, and how they can improve their performance and production. Assessing a student on something she cannot control or does not have the tools to improve upon makes no sense. Such arbitrariness should be avoided at all costs.


    • Finally, self-assessment is a good way to help students internalize the course objectives, as well as standards of evaluation that will help them gauge how well they are doing with respect to those objectives. For instance, if you’re given the freedom to award “participation points” for discussions -- you might have students submit a half-sheet of paper at the end of each session on which they rate their participation from 1-5, justify their score in a sentence, and write a sentence about how they can improve next time. This assessment will give them a chance to evaluate their own performance and participation in the discussion, and start to gain a reflective awareness of their in-class performance. You’ll then want to review and adjust (if necessary) the self-assessments, in order to provide students with feedback about how well they are internalizing the standards of evaluation, how accurate their evaluation of their performance (and the performance of the group) is, etc.

    Is the Love of Truth Incompatible with Living Comfortably?

    Emerson says yes: 


    I'm not so sure...I mean, I suppose it depends on how practically demanding you think the love of truth is. And what standards you have for "living comfortably." Let's get a bit more precise:

    •  Incompatibility: regularly fulfilling one's epistemic duty in the course of everyday life is not compatible with living the sort of healthy, well-balanced life that is often held up as ideal in our culture

    Is Incompatibility  true? Emerson's suggestion seems to be something like this: the well-balanced life presupposes stable beliefs or sets of beliefs in things like religion, political positions, moral issues, etc. One cannot examine one's worldview too deeply, lest the foundations of that worldview start to crumble and demand time and effort be put into arriving at more accurate (and more nuanced) views.

    I'm sympathetic to this claim. I mean, I think we're often to complacent when it comes to the foundations of our views. I think one of the great benefits of living in a culture that is both strongly pluralistic, and as technologically connected as ours is that such complacency is actually much harder to maintain. When you used to have to travel halfway across the world to encounter someone who believed in a different God (or rely on the caricatures of those who had), it was easier to do one's due diligence and arrive at the reasonable conclusion that one's inherited views more or less got it right. Today, we can't even log in to Facebook without being confronted with a barrage of alternative views. Though these views usually aren't the paradigm of reasonability and well-reasoned argument, the sheer variety we're faced with tips us off to the fact (or perhaps makes it the case) that a good deal of intellectual investigation will be required in order for one to have done one's epistemic duty with respect to even very basic religious, political, and moral beliefs.

    In any event, this issue was first presented to me (in a slightly different guise) by Peter Finocchiaro -- a friend and fellow PhD student -- and he's currently working on a post or two that attempts to answer the question I've hinted at here within the context of professional philosophy (as in: he's examining an incompatibility thesis like the one above with respect to one's duties as a professional philosopher and educator). I'd like to use those posts as a springboard to examine the question in other contexts as well. We'll see if I get to it. I might just want to go repose someplace and turn my brain off for a while.  

    Course Objectives

    I've been thinking a lot about course design lately. One reason for this is very practical: I'm developing a course right now called God and the Good Life with Meghan Sullivan (you can check out the website here: http://godandgoodlife.org/), and course development requires you to think hard about course objectives. Some of the others reasons, though, are more abstract. I'm always really taken with this op-eds and think pieces about the value of a liberal education. I always nod my head while I'm reading books like William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep , I always think to myself: "That's right, the liberal arts aren't and shouldn't be purely instrumental!" But I think that this attitude often leads us directly into what we could call the Ineffability Fallacy. According to IF practices which are pursued for their own sake don't have quantifiable goals; you can't measure intrinsic goodness. I am, of course, sympathetic to the spirit of IF. Often -- especially within the domain of education -- measurable goals are introduced in order to (or eventually lead to) reduce the practice into something you can put a dollar sign on. "GRE scores correlate with higher income. Philosophy majors get higher GRE scores, ergo..."

    But, lately I've been growing increasingly skeptical of the way that people employ IF in order to justify bad pedagogy. Significant learning outcomes need not reduce to (or eventuate in) financial deliverables. We need not think that striving to better understand -- in concrete and measurable ways -- what helps students learn must ultimately be justified and evaluated in economic terms.

    That's what I've been learning a lot from business lately. Yes, business. Even as someone who favors democratic socialism, is pre-disposed to think markets will tend toward vice and evil rather than virtue and the good, and has professed hatred for the hand-wavy seemingly nonsensical nature of business-speak (probably because I just haven't been focusing enough on my profit-margins and need to directly target bigger and more diverse markets without decreasing productivity...I could do this all day) -- even still -- I've been getting really into business theory and practice. A professor of mine suggested I take a look at Peter Drucker's writings a couple weeks back, and I've been pretty hooked.

    Drucker talks about breaking business objectives down into 6 key areas -- each of which has a pedagogical counter part, I think. Those objective areas are:

    1. Marketing
    2. Innovation
    3. Resources
    4. Productivity
    5. Social Responsibility
    6. Profit Requirements

    I'll briefly reflect on just a couple of these areas to show you how I think educators -- especially at the college level -- could benefit from thinking about their courses (and course development) in terms of business models.


    Okay, to illustrate just how surprising the insights from business can be, I'll start with one of the most counter-intuitive objective areas. Marketing. How could marketing possibly apply within the educational context? Like it or not, universities have become marketplaces. Students are consumers. They pay an exorbitant amount of money for accreditation. Pursuing the truth for its own sake is something that, within this context, is actually prudentially irrational. 

    So we have to innovate. We have to show students why taking our courses might be valuable for them -- why it might help them accomplish their general life-goals, financial goals, or perhaps enrich their lives in ways they'd never previously considered. All of this requires more than just sitting down and writing up a course description with words like "universal questions, deep thinkers, practical value" -- it means getting in there and learning about your audience. Figuring out who might take your course, and developing resources that are aimed at that group. 

    We've been trying to do this with our God and the Good Life Course. Here's a trailer we came up to help illustrate what students can expect from the course:

    A Few More Thoughts...

    With respect to Resource Objectives: what does philosophy (for instance), as a discipline, have to offer the best and the brightest at our universities? The academic job market is saturated, but employers continue to value the critical thinking that philosophy majors consistently exhibit. Philosophy majors make more money, and are more competitive in many markets, than most other majors. How can we use this -- not as a crude capitalistic carrot, nor as an embarrassing recruitment technique -- but as a data point, something that can help us tailor the courses we offer to those students who will need to critically apply difficult philosophical concepts to realities in sectors like business, secondary education, etc.? The same goes for Innovation Objectives.

    And how about Productivity Objectives? This is an area that I think is particularly important. What does it mean for a student to be productive in a philosophy course? Does it mean she absorbs a certain amount of knowledge? Acquires certain skills? It's not entirely clear, but I think it's worth thinking about as we design our courses and write our syllabi. Whatever the answer, I think we need to make sure that it influences the way that we use grades as incentives (rather than ends in themselves) when considering how to assess assignments.

    Social Responsibilities Objectives should be one of our strongest suits. We're constantly griping about how many people in our culture seem unable to think critically about the moral dimensions of their actions, or the systematic implications of the way they structure their business or community, but we are we doing as educators to change this? What are we doing to measure the things we're doing to change this?

    I've got more thoughts on this, but enough for now. I'd be interested to hear from others on this topic. Do you think it's helpful to think of learning experiences and outcomes in terms of objectives? Do you think the analogy with business models and concepts is helpful? Do you think it distorts the purposes or realities of the educational enterprise? Let me know what you think, and I'll keep sharing Drucker quotes as I come across them...