Saylor's Existentialism – Senior Year – Global MOOCs
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Degree of Freedom News -
September 30

Well my Existentialism class just wrapped, and while I'm not a convert I hope this week's review will give you a sense of the up- and down-sides of Saylor's curated approach to learning.

After that, it's onto my senior year lineup followed by some thoughts on what the entrants of two European MOOC providers might mean for a project that's largely been driven by US-based companies.

And as I get past the three-quarter mark in this project, thanks to everyone who's been sending notes of encouragement (not to mention comments, queries and corrections).

Now it's time to grab your beret and put on your best scowl as we dig right into…

Course Review - Existentialism

I've been as eager to report on this course as I was excited to take it, especially since it covered a set of philosophers I've not yet had to study (such as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger), and taught the material in a way different than has every other class I've taken to date.

For, as I've discussed previously on the Degree of Freedom blog,'s classes are curated rather than produced like your average MOOC.  So instead of having a single professor giving recorded lectures with a teaching team organizing assignments and managing discussion, a course developed by Saylor includes material pulled from the open web and organized into a set of assignments that build to the complete educational experience.

To make this concrete, their Existentialism course I just completed consists of eight units, each dedicated to a specific thinker (including Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus) associated in some way to the philosophical movement of Existentialism.

I say "associated" since some of these writers (notably Sartre) invented/embraced/popularized the Existentialist label while others (such as Heidegger) eschewed it.  And while claiming a 17th century religious thinker like Pascal or 19th century novelist like Dostoevsky as having extolled a philosophy that didn't become fully articulated until the 20th century would commit the "Historian's Fallacy" of projecting backwards, seeing how this early work prefigured a modern day movement that tries to find meaning in a man-centered universe (I mean human-centered, sorry Simone) was one of the most intriguing aspects of this course.

Getting back to mechanics, each unit consisted of a set of assignments that included readings (both primary and secondary sources), recorded university lectures (mostly found on YouTube and iTunes U) and podcasts from well-known philosophy series such as Philosophy Bites and Partially Examined Life.  And while a dedicated student can make it through each of these units in a week, the course is asynchronous which (using my slightly eccentric definition of the term) means you can start and stop whenever you like, and take as long as you need to complete it.

Now given the wealth of material available on the web, this seems an ideal way to teach a complex subject like Existential philosophy.  For rather than asking one professor to do his best when lecturing on a diverse range of difficult philosophers, writers and thinkers, the Saylor curator for this course was able to "recruit" the very best talent to lecture just within his or her field of expertise. 

Similarly, reading lists could be compiled from a wide range of primary and secondary sources.  So in addition to wrestling with tough philosophical texts (such as Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling) and fictional work from Dostoevsky (Notes from the Underground), Sartre (No Exit) and Camus (The Stranger), there were also important secondary texts (such as entries from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that were useful in uniting disparate material related to each writer/philosopher.

That said, such a "grab the best stuff from anywhere" strategy comes at a price, especially with regard to maintaining an overall narrative structure for a course.  For when all lectures come from a single professor, material can be presented as following an overarching timeline, presentation or argument.  And while the Stanford Encyclopedia's entry on Existentialism assigned in Unit 1 helped put the whole project into some kind of context, at some point the course began to feel like a series of intellectual biographies with limited connective tissue.

Some of this has to do with the nature of curated learning, but I would also say that curators can do more to make the overall course feel cumulative.  For Saylor classes are built around a unit-by-unit outline with the 8-12 assignments associated with each unit.  And these assignments are grouped into batches of 1-3 items built around an instruction such as "As you review the essay, consider answering the following questions: Is total freedom compatible with intellectual pride?" (I pulled this one from the Unit 3 on Dostoevsky, BTW).

Now there's nothing wrong with using such challenging questions as a framing device.  But I don't see why the professor couldn't have expanded the course outline to better present a narrative that would "package" the material we were studying into a better-defined whole.

The grade for the course was based on a set of quizzes that ended each unit and a final exam that completed the course.  And as with virtually all the courses I've taken so far this year, assessment is the weakest part of the product (if someone asks if that religious kook Soren Kierkegaard is an atheist, answer False, oh and Camus' Stranger pumped five bullets into his victim, not four).

Now I was initially hesitant to criticize this course in any way since (1) it was free; (2) it was a far more thorough learning experience than were other courses I've taken; and (3) I want Saylor to create more philosophy courses (including that course on Empiricism and Pragmatism that appeared on their TBA list earlier in the year, but which since disappeared).
If that disappearance had to do with low interest in courses like Existentialism (as far as I can tell, fewer than a hundred people have taken it), then responsibility for limited expansion to this series lies with us and not with Saylor.  Which is a pity since, as I'm learning during my attempt to self curate a course on Kant (which I'll review in a few weeks time), you really need an expert to help you navigate the contours and sources associated with a complex subject. 

And despite a few areas with room for improvement, the Saylor formula works.  So I hope they'll find the time, resources and wherewithal to experiment in more areas that might have to wait to find their audience. 


Degree of Freedom Progress Report

I usually like to give newsletter subscribers a sneak peek at my course lineups.  But for senior year, I dawdled far too long on making final decisions which means you may have already seen this course lineup on the web site:

Course: Søren Kierkegaard - Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity
Institution: University of Copenhagen
Provider: Coursera
Category: Social Sciences
Credits: 1

Course: The Fall and Rise of Jerusalem
Institution: Tel Aviv University
Provider: Coursera
Category: Social Sciences
Credits: 1

Course: Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science
Institution: Harvard
Provider: edX
Category: Science and Mathematics
Credits: 1

Course: China
Institution: Harvard
Provider: edX
Category: Social Sciences
Credits: 1

Course: Technology Entrepreneurship – Part 1
Institution: Stanford
Provider: Novoed
Category: Special
Credits: 1

Course: Pragmatism
Institution: Various
Provider: Independent Study
Category: Social Sciences
Credits: 1

Course: Why Evil Exists
Institution: University of Virginia
Provider: Great Courses
Category: Social Sciences
Credits: 1

Sharp-eyed readers will notice that this list only includes seven full-credit courses vs. my usual eight per "year."  This does not represent corner cutting, but rather reflects a decision to keep one slot open in anticipation of either a senior writing project or a course that's too good to miss becoming available in the next month or two. 

So stay tuned to find out what will constitute my final credit required for "graduation."

This Week's Issue – Yurp

In the last two weeks, we've seen two new European entrants into the MOOC field.

On the Degree of Freedom web site, I recently welcomed FutureLearn, a MOOC spin off from the UK's venerable Open University.  And iVersity (a recent German entry into the field) demonstrates that US dominance of the MOOC provider space (represented by organizations such as Udacity, edX and Coursera) may be fleeting.

That said, Paul Morris (a frequent visitor to the Degree of Freedom site who is a graduate of Open University) expressed serious disappointment at the initial set of courses offered by FutureLearn which he describes thus:

"Nearly a year after being announced FutureLearn manages to limp into action, still in Beta form, with a handful of courses, most not to be offered until well into 2014 and still with the rider: 'Places may be limited” and noting that “the courses we’ll be running this year are all pilot courses."


Now I'll admit that his comment helped me put my initial enthusiasm over these new MOOC providers into perspective.  But having taken a couple of Coursera courses recently that originated from European Universities, including University of London's Common Law class and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU)'s just completed course on Mathematical Philosophy, there is clearly a talent pool to be tapped that may become more enthused about putting the time and effort into creating MOOCs if national pride can work alongside more traditional MOOC motivators (such as the ability to introduce the world to a subject you love to teach).

But given the pace at which they're currently moving, the answer to the question of who (if anyone) will dominate the MOOC-iverse is something we'll have to wait until 2014 and beyond to answer.

On the blog

Another smattering this week on the Degree of Freedom site:

Of MOOCs and typos and broken links

Welcome FutureLearn

My Senior Year

Have MOOC challenges already been solved?

Interview with Eric
Robison, CEO of

This week's issue


European Universities Catch the Online Wave

FutureLearn - Too little too late?

Quality vs. cost

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If you're looking to learn more about how MOOCs and other learning models are impacting all aspects of education, check out the ongoing discussion at the Degree of Freedom web site.

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