Archive for February 2013
In the Forum This Week
An anonymous participant (I’m uneasy about anonymity but there can be good reasons for it) posted a comment in the forum wondering why some people there already seem so familiar with philosophy. After all, it IS a course with designated teachers and students and furthermore it’s an INTRODUCTORY course so students should have little or no previous knowledge of the subject. This was followed by some choice remarks on self-aggrandising participants obstructing reasoned debate.
SIGH!! – On reflection, I remembered my own puzzlement on entering my first MOOC (CCK11 a cMOOC on ‘Connective Learning’) and finding some participants who seemingly knew it all and had attended the same course, once or even twice before! This turned out to be fortunate. They were usually quite willing to encourage and share with the newbies – I’m still in touch with some.
Anyway, I got carried away and posted something along the following lines on this and some other issues that were bothering me. It’s a bit preachy but I’ve more or less reproduced it all here, not only because I’m lazy (or it’s going to sink without trace in the mammoth forum!) but because I think it says something about ‘MOOCs-of-our-time’ in general – and xMOOCs in particular.
Address to Disgruntled Participants
I’m an academic, a retired one at least, with the time to have participated in several MOOCs since 2011. MOOCs are relatively new so it’s inevitable that many of you joining a MOOC for the first time have expectations based on your experience of traditional courses. A MOOC is, or can be, a very different animal – some say it’s NOT a ‘course’ at all! First and foremost, a MOOC is for self-learners. How could it be anything else? Individual attention by the facilitators is in short supply given thousands of students – we’re lucky that the level and quality of contributions made by our facilitators is unusually high.
Open admission to a MOOC results in a wide diversity of participants who differ in educational background, age, language, culture etc. Of course a MOOC on a ‘popular’ subject like philosophy attracts those who already know, or think they know, along with those who know very little. The challenge for us is to learn to learn from each other – not to expect the last word in squeaky-clean knowledge to be pumped one way into our brains by the facilitators!
A challenge for facilitators is to frame the syllabus so that everyone has a fighting chance of departing with something of educational benefit, including the vast majority of the 90,000, the so-called ‘dropouts’ who, for whatever reasons, will not complete the MOOC. Personally, I can’t think of a better strategy than what’s being done – presenting basic philosophical nuts and bolts with the minimum of technicalities and a nod and a wink to the philosophers and issues of our own times. This suits me very well as a beginner but there’s also numerous links to additional material for the more advanced and (in spite of such a clunky forum) plenty opportunity for them to assist others – there’s certainly good examples of this happening.
MOOCs present far less of a problem when it comes to ‘trolls’, ‘know-it-alls’ and so on than for a traditional course. Just move on, don’t react – start your own thread somewhere else. The facilitators will act if there’s a serious problem.
Finally, on the videos – this is probably the first time that some of the facilitators have tackled anything like this before and I think they’ve done an absolutely excellent job. Nothing wrong with constructive criticism of course but some comments I’ve seen appear very unfair. Lecturing may seem effortless (particularly if you’ve never done it yourself!) but very few people are naturals and most have to work hard to get it right. It’s hard enough lecturing to a traditional classroom of students where at least there’s some opportunity for feedback but lecturing at a dumb camera must be quite a change. I suspect that considerable time and effort, planning and rehearsal has gone into the making of these videos – and they’re all being made freely available to us.
This week I tried really hard to connect with other participants through the forum – but without much success. This is unsettling – not like the cMOOCs. Far better to slink away with the notes and downloaded videos, they’re really good, and abandon the connected learning thing.
If that’s my emotional reaction then what about someone with less of an educational background, or whose English is limited, having to wrestle with such a mammoth and clunky online forum? All 90,000 people said to have enrolled for this MOOC may not be using the forum but hundreds certainly are! Unless a post catches the eye in the first few hours of its birth it dies an early death; a fate suffered by many many posts. I doubt if the authors ever return again after a couple of tries. Setting aside fundamental objections to stuffing hundreds of participants into a closed and centralised forum, it’s not so very difficult to come up with suggestions on how to improve navigation and other features of the forum as it stands – and some participants already have. I would head the list with a basic forum FAQ so that for starters, participants could learn how to find their own posts!
Fortunately, it’s in the power of MOOCs to triumph over adversity and the Massive in MOOC is ensuring that impressively large numbers of participants are engaging in the forum and probably learning something. As always for MOOCs, exactly what’s being learned can be difficult to pinpoint but there’s certainly vigorous discussion. Some participants are expert in one field or another and their contributions can be illuminating – or even intimidating if they become impatient with the non-experts. The trouble with philosophy is that no topic is off-topic so there’s endless debate on just about everything under the sun (or beyond it!) and not all is particularly philosophical. On the other hand there are excellent contributions by individuals who are labelled, ‘Instructors’ and others by ‘Students’ focusing more on the philosophical angle – the questions behind questions rather than the questions themselves. I’m coming to think that’s what philosophy is, or should be about.
This week we got right into some of the epistemological problems that philosophers worry about. Propositional knowledge is knowledge that – eg Paris is the capital of France (Where have I heard that one before?).
For a belief about something to be knowledge the Justified True Belief (JTB) theory requires that:
- It has to actually be true.
- It has to be believed to be true.
- The belief has to be justifiable – good reasons needed in support of why it’s true.
So far so good and evidently all philosophers from Plato down were reasonably happy with this until one, Edmund Gettier, in 1963, rather short on publications, finally published a 3-page paper that completely upset the apple cart!
Here’s my homespun example of a Gettier case:
I lock my car manually before I go shopping but on returning, I operate my electronic key fob in the belief that my car will unlock. As expected the car then unlocks with the usual audible clunk and flash of indicator lights. But when I get home my wife apologises for removing the battery from the key fob (it was a new battery) and forgetting to tell me!
Now 1. and 2. above are satisfied and so is 3. I had good justification as the key fob had always been reliable and with a new battery, I’d every reason to believe it would do its job. What actually happened was that, by a fantastic fluke, someone else nearby with exactly the same key code had operated their own key fob at exactly the same time causing my car to unlock! (This is not impossible – the number of different codes is finite!) So JTB fails – the car unlocked as I believed it would be and my belief was well-justified but yet the car would have remained locked were it not for a lucky accident. My belief turns out to be false and therefore not knowledge.
With most epistemoligists accepting the breakdown of JTB it’s back to the drawing board. I can’t get my head around JTB theory too well but my feeling is that there’s something fundamentally suspect about the whole thing. It may be a useful exercise in manipulating the nuts and bolts of philosophic thought but it doesn’t seem to relate much to what Prof Pritchard stated, very sensibly, at the outset in his first lecture about it being “… crucial to us to understand both what knowledge is and to assure ourselves that we have as much knowledge as we think we do.” Fair enough, but in everyday life what counts as knowledge is rarely the strict stuff of JTB. It’s more like, “maybe true” or “somewhat false” or even a bit of both depending on folks’ perspectives. Now something like Information Theory may sharpen up the everyday concept of information very satisfactorily for telecommunications engineers who design efficient networks and so on but as far as I know there’s nothing similar for dealing with ‘knowledge’.
I think of knowledge as essentially a property of a brain that’s well-developed by evolution to somehow code and store a sophisticated model of the external world – and ever ready for action. Knowledge that ‘Paris is the capital of France’ brings all sorts of associations with it that I need to act on if I actually go to Paris. Good knowledge is what correlates well but never perfectly, with what’s actually out there – maybe I won’t get lost on the Paris Metro if I have it! Measuring knowledge and how it’s acquired is of course something else again – perhaps best left to the neurologists of the future or even educators.
Brain in a Vat? Controlled by Evil Demons? Why not!
Enough! I enjoyed this second week despite my reservations. I’m less dubious about the importance of Radical Skepticism and the ‘Brain in a Vat’ problem. You only need a little imagination of the SF type to realise that there’s an infinity of Matrix-like scenarios leading to the same conclusion that it’s impossible to know they’re unreal. It’s important and humbling for we bigheads to have serious doubts cast on whether we can really know anything. Life is based on assumptions – fine! – let’s make our assumptions wisely and then get on with it!
After one week I’m really enjoying the Introduction to Philosophy MOOC and this is encouraging as I’ve no background in the subject at all. Thankfully, the academic level seems very basic and IMHO the lecturing style and performance of Dave Ward (and his jumper) featuring in the first week videos is very good. For me anyway, these five short videos were just the right length for single study sessions and they have a degree of clarity and a lack of verbal distraction (errs.. and umms.. etc) that I’ve rarely experienced in ‘live’ lectures. Some participants found Dave’s Scottish accent difficult but, being Scottish myself and having lectured to audiences of diverse nationalities, I’m fairly sure there should be no real problem for anyone with a reasonable grasp of English. In any case complete transcripts of all the lectures are available for download. The existence of Dave’s jumper though was a problem for some – ‘jumper’ is ‘sweater’ in American – not a potential suicide!
I think xMOOCs should become more like cMOOCs but I don’t think it’s necessarily all one way. As a beginner, would I have learned as effectively in a cMOOC offering a similar course without the scaffolding provided by a competent ‘teacher’? The introphil forum is overwhelming with hundreds upon hundreds of people discussing everything under the sun. This is excellent and there’s a reasonably good spirit of tolerance and respect among participants but I doubt if we could teach each other the basics of philosophy very well without teacher!
I must have contributed something to a ‘Meaning of Life’ forum because every few seconds another Meaning arrives in my email. There doesn’t seem to be a forum search box on every page and you can’t search for people by name unless they happen to be mentioned in the body of posts. With so many participants (around 90,000 evidently registered) the forums do not seem fit for purpose and my impression is that the well-meaning instructors are struggling to cope.
Occupy the MOOCs !
Looking through the massive introphil forums I came across an interesting contribution by a young lady from a so-called underdeveloped country – I can’t find it now of course! Looking at her profile, she was registered for around 16 different xMOOCs running this year. Now maybe she’s a budding genius with the time to participate and distinguish herself in so many academic areas. Or maybe she has a real but casual interest in a multitude of topics and intends to participate in as many MOOCs as she can whenever she has the time. Or maybe she’ll just login to download everything and study it at a later date and if she happens to be a teacher, pass it on to others. Maybe she even intends to print it up and sell it at cost – or even at a profit! Does it really matter much what she does? Of course the more that goes into a MOOC by way of sharing and connecting with other participants the better the learning experience but many are not fortunate enough to fully participate. Let’s just be grateful that MOOCs are here to stay with a stupid name that might actually help to draw a sharp distinction between them and traditional courses, on or offline. Let’s accept that, on the whole, MOOCs are or should be FOR the ‘lurker’, the ‘toe-dipper’, the ‘dropout’ and not necessarily be considered deficient just because they don’t live up to the learning objectives of traditional courses. Learners of the world unite – Occupy the MOOCs!
Yesterday the Comment Scraper came up with 145 comments from 36 posts covering about a week of etmooc activity. (I’m only archiving the output now as discussed here.) I’m going to try aggregating comments from WordPress or Blogger introphil blogs in the same way – from small beginnings at present! It will be helpful if such blogs include introphil as a tag or text in the body of posts.