#Introphil MOOC – Seventh Week Impressions
Final Topic – This week was about Time Travel. Initially I thought there would be little to say about it without getting into big time physics but I was very wrong. Metaphysics is the name of the game, “a branch of philosophy that investigates the ways that reality could intelligibly be”, according to the introductory note and the idea was to use time travel as a case study. You may suppress a good laugh at the possibility of transporting a person backwards or forwards in time but things become less clear and considerably more involved, when you actually examine the logic. Consider the ‘grandfather paradox’ – go back in time, kill your own grandfather so you can’t exist in the first place – contradiction. But there are circumstances where logic dictates that you could actually go back in time and apparently intervene – remember that tall story a grandfather tells about how he once narrowly escaped death by a mysterious and unknown assassin…..?
Futuristic Flashings – I used to supervise lab projects using electronic logic gates. For example, designing a circuit that flashes a light 1 second after a button is pressed. Someone in the forum drew attention to a SF short story where a device is invented so that the light flashes 1 second before a button is pressed! This caused mental illness, anxiety and depression in the story because of an apparent loss of free will. I had an interesting argument with someone in the forum who held that free will would be unaffected. If I choose to press the button without seeing it flash then something (nature, God, whatever) must stop me if the device is working properly – even if the ceiling has to fall on my head! On the other hand, if the light suddenly flashes and I choose not to press the button then something else must – perhaps the cat passes by and accidentally presses it. These scenarios suggest a significant loss of free will to me but my inconclusive search for a definition of ‘free will’ reveals little consensus anywhere about what the term means. Now all this is fantastically weird and probably quite impossible but it does demonstrate how some very basic issues can be examined rationally by anyone without resorting to SF, or spending 10 years becoming a research physicist! I mentioned something along these lines in one of the introphil FB groups but somebody thought “hoi polloi” should not bother about such things! All the same, I’m adding it to my expanding list of ‘What Philosophy is For’.
cMOOCs and xMOOCs – My strong impression is that an overwhelming number of people taking this philosophy xMOOC are leaving it well pleased. Of course there was some nit-picking. Some participants expected different content and presentation styles – greater or less difficulty, longer or shorter videos, no funny accents, less talking heads, less humour, more shots ‘on location’, no mirrored reflections of female lecturers in museums(!), no dressing up for Serious Lectures on Time Travel….. Some criticism was very constructive, particularly about the awful forums, but the focus on the MCQ assessment process by participants, almost regardless of its real educational value, suggests that many are greatly influenced by baggage dragged in from traditional face-to-face courses. This of course is not discouraged by Coursera – presumably with a view to eventual monetisation of the MOOC.
To my mind, the undeniable success of this particular xMOOC lies centrally with the team of facilitators at Edinburgh University rather than with Coursera. Yes, there were sages on stages but some of them did actually descend to mingle with hoi polloi. In particular, Dr Richmond, of Time Travel fame deserves special mention. He popped up all over the forums, right from the beginning of the course and must have spent an inordinate amount of his time dealing with questions. He also quelled the inevitable trolls and stroppiness with impressive diplomacy and constant good humour. I hope he’s had due recognition and some relief from his normal university duties – or maybe he’s just been exercising his special skills!
Some time ago I wrote something on ‘Why can’t an xMOOC be more like a cMOOC?‘ but now I’m wondering what cMOOCs might learn from a good xMOOC? Good and conscientious facilitation is a must – I remember a certain cMOOC where all the facilitators suddenly vanished for days without explanation. Also, I think that the connectivist claim of knowledge being “literally in the connections” is (setting aside philosophical misgivings) rather less valid without some really strong connections with the experts. Some introphil participants certainly made valuable contributions that helped and connected with many others but I think most participants would agree that the contributions made by the professional philosophers were consistently of a very much higher standard in clarity and content and rather more effective in pushing along the educational process.