Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’
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.
Are Scientific Theories true ? – very interesting topic for me this week. At issue is whether ‘truth’ is the aim of science (scientific realism) or whether science doesn’t need to be true to be good (anti-realism). This is a big topic to cover in a few short videos but from where I sit, the lecturer, who went to the trouble of having some relevant shots taken in an Edinburgh museum, did a very good basic job.
In the forum – I had an interesting discussion about what a realist would make of quantum mechanics. Here’s a quick resume: The humble electron is a good candidate for consideration. As time passes the realist, on the basis of widely accepted experimental evidence, is pleased to associate various properties with this tiny but concrete object (spin, charge, etc) and accepts all this as at least, approximate truth. Then quantum theory comes along. Although the realist happily accepts a probabilistic view of electron states on the basis of good evidence, she has some difficulty keeping her realist hat on while trying to accept that the electron is ‘really’ not one thing or another until it’s observed.
This may not be particularly relevant to the scientist in the field but it’s certainly a provocative thought if you happen to be a realist. Maybe a purpose of philosophy is to act as a gadfly. As Socrates is reported to have said, “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” I will add this to my list headed, ‘what philosophy is for’.
cMOOC found in an xMOOC ! – I’m convinced that inside every xMOOC there’s a cMOOC trying to get out. This can be difficult because of the way things are set up, particularly with Coursera’s terrible clunky closed forums but, just as in cMOOCs, there is a natural tendency for at least some participants to cooperate, create, share and make connections. Some examples – one participant posts her reflections, not only on current course material but on supplementary references she’s actually studied: all with helpful links. Various study subgroups have been set up by participants under headings of nationality, age, location, subject specialist etc though I haven’t noticed very much activity in these very recently. There are a number of helpful experts, mainly in the physical sciences and computing areas, who really do seem to know what they’re talking about – maybe contrary to my initial impressions when some people seemed more defensive and less tolerant of the poets! A good example of DIY spirit was the participant who, single-handedly, produced a complete transcript of this weeks videos before the official version was available.
Comment Scraping – I undertook to unleash my Comment Scraper on the introphil MOOC but my main computer with all the programs crashed more than a week ago. I’m hoping to get it back today and if so, comment scraping can be restarted, though some comments will be irrevocably lost because of missed aggregation.
‘Should You Believe What You Hear?’ was the title for this week. It was all very interesting to me as a Scotsman because there was so much to say about David Hume and his rival, the religiously trained Thomas Reid, also a Scottish philosopher who became a professor at the University of Aberdeen in 1752. Reid was the more trusting and thought people were naturally inclined to believe what others told them and that they tended to be truthful themselves. Hume on the other hand was all for ‘intellectual autonomy’ – think for yourself and don’t trust testimony unless you have evidence that it’s likely to be right.
I knew almost nothing about Thomas Reid but David Hume of course is very well known and his views seem far more in tune with the world today than Reid’s. Reid appeals to ‘Common Sense’ as a guiding force in his ‘Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense’ (1764) although, to me anyway, some of his beliefs seem lacking in just that! To be fair, the same could also be said of some of Hume’s beliefs judging from a video on Louise Taylor’s excellent blog. I’m beginning to think that all philosophers tend to push the boundaries of common sense a little too far but maybe that’s part of what philosophy is for, as well as asking and thinking about questions instead of answering them.
I tend to place some reliance on common sense. What else have we got when we move out of our own personal areas of expertise? If common sense is the distillation of life’s experience that we carry around in our heads, ever ready to deal pragmatically with day-to-day problems, it should not be too surprising that one person’s common sense can be very different from another’s. Also, common sense ideas from the past have often been shown to be wrong. All the same, it’s unsettling to think of common sense just floating around unanchored in a sea of subjectivity.
Years ago, a panel of luminaries such as Julian Huxley, Alfred Ayer, Jacob Bronowski, Bertrand Russell etc would come together on an extremely popular BBC radio programme called ‘The Brains Trust’. One question for discussion that I remember was, “What is common sense” but what sticks with me is not their actual words of wisdom but my astonishment at how elusive definition seemed to be and how much they had to say about it. I can’t come up with a good definition of common sense either. Who knows? Maybe I will by the end of this course!
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.
I’ve joined the Edinburgh University Introduction to Philosophy Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). This is an ‘xMOOC’, a term used to describe the ‘instructivist’ MOOCs that are usually given by existing colleges and universities from platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and Futurelearn. However, I would like to see xMOOCs become more learner centred and open like the earlier Connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) . Evidently some 260,000 people are now signed up for the Philosophy MOOC so I’ll be looking for more than a few independent souls ready to discuss the content and performance of this xMOOC in a cMOOC style by blogging outside the ‘official’ course forums. (See Liberating the xMOOC – a Philosophical Experiment. Searching is helped if the tag, introphil appears somewhere in a post.) Anyone unfamiliar with cMOOC ideas should look at the classic 2010 video by Dave Cormier made long before xMOOCs were even a twinkle in the eye of the venture capitalists. Here, ‘MOOC’ means ‘cMOOC’ in today’s parlance. (Don’t miss the wry exchange on YouTube between Dave Cormier and a commenter on the meaning of ‘MOOC’!)
cMOOCs are very peculiar beasts. I was first thrown by one in 2011 (CCK11) when it dawned on me that, contrary to what was on the tin, a cMOOC wasn’t a ‘course’ at all. Instead, a heady amalgam of ‘massive’, ‘open’ and ‘online’ was leading to a quite extraordinary place where the normal rules of learning engagement just didn’t apply. There were a couple of facilitators but no teachers. Participants were encouraged to create and maintain their own blogs. Social media was used for discussion and sharing resources. Topics were explored together, connections made and groups were formed and maintained long after the MOOC was over. cMOOCs never die – I still check out the CCK11 page on Facebook.
Why don’t xMOOCs explore the brave new paths followed by the earlier cMOOCs? Some participants join a MOOC with the express purpose of passing an exam and gaining credit of some sort. Nothing wrong with that of course and cMOOCs have included small numbers of students aiming at formal certification. Passing examinations though is not the primary purpose of education and the obsession with exams evident in the xMOOCs strikes me as unhealthy. MOOC participants have diverse learning objectives in comparison with students taking the traditional university or college courses that current xMOOCs appear to be based on. Typically, a traditional course is aimed at a small bunch of carefully-selected, exam-orientated students of about the same age and educational background who turn up at set times to hear a professor pontificate. Why adopt such a narrow, timid little beast as a standard when MOOCs, given adequate investment in planning and infrastructure, have at least the potential to be as broad in purpose and scope as anyone could wish for? A really mature MOOC could have a traditional course for breakfast!
Dropouts Rule! – OK ?
Now consider those who have actually participated in MOOCs. Most do not belong to the tiny minority of eager beavers who have the time and opportunity to study regularly, meet all the deadlines and pass a final examination with flying colours. The overwhelming majority of participants are the so-called dropouts. What does it really mean to be a MOOC dropout? Does it mean:
- leaving happily after a week or two because you’ve already found the content and connections you came looking for in the first place?
- leaving sadly after making reasonable progress but not sitting the final exam because you find multiple choice tests demotivating and couldn’t get help – or perhaps your English just wasn’t up to the job?
- making exceptional progress, gladly engaging with and assisting other participants but then being brought to a grinding halt by ‘real life’ – loss of internet connectivity, unexpected work commitments, having a baby?
- becoming bored and losing interest because you’re only 13 and without the right background but persevering long enough to make sense of a few technical terms and maybe launch a lifelong interest?
- just looking in to check all the buzz about MOOCs and then joining a different MOOC later on for more serious study?
There’s at least anecdotal evidence for all these ‘dropout’ scenarios and others where at least some educational benefit is to be gained. It may be very difficult to pinpoint or quantify but it should not be overlooked!
Here’s my small plan. I’ve dabbled in one or two cMOOCs and xMOOCs and now I’m about to join another xMOOC – Introduction to Philosophy , a Coursera MOOC by Dave Ward, Duncan Pritchard, Michela Massimi, Suilin Lavelle, Matthew Chrisman, Allan Hazlett and Alasdair Richmond from the University of Edinburgh and starting on 28th January.
I’d like to see xMOOCs become much more learner centred, more open like the cMOOCs where independent interaction between participants is positively encouraged. So I’ll be looking outside the ‘official’ course forums for blogs and comments by participants. I’m blowing the cobwebs off my experimental Comment Scraper and if I can find enough activity I’ll try to bring it all together here in a summarised format as I did before during parts of previous cMOOCs.
If you intend to discuss the content or performance of the Introduction to Philosophy MOOC in a WordPress or Blogger blog and don’t mind being comment scraped please consider helping the experiment by letting me know (by comment below or via email ) your blog URL so that the Scraper can tap into the RSS feeds. Note that the relevant hashtag is #introphil.
I’ve never studied philosophy before but this particular MOOC, one of the first from a leading UK University, does seem attractive as it’s introductory and “1-2 hours per week” not too demanding in study time. According to the website:
This course will introduce you to some of the main areas of research in contemporary philosophy. Each week a different philosopher will talk you through some of the most important questions and issues in their area of expertise. We’ll begin by trying to understand what philosophy is – what are its characteristic aims and methods, and how does it differ from other subjects? Then we’ll spend the rest of the course gaining an introductory overview of several different areas of philosophy.
It really is a massive course – about 80,000 people enrolled so far. ‘Meaning of Life’ in the first week – I can’t wait!