The Socratic value of Moocs

Rolf Strom-Olsen. Academic Director of Humanities Studies at IE Humanities Center

23 January 2014

The rise of MOOCs and the fact that they are open to all and free of charge has caused great consternation in the academic world. Socrates, however, would have approved.

My MOOC (Critical Perspectives on Management) finally starts next week after seven long months of work, much of it hard (big shout out to my director Phil!). In the brief introductory video that we put together to walk through the class syllabus, I make the point that, as a Humanities course masquerading as a strategy class, the methodological inspiration derives from those two fundamental tenets of the Socratic imperative: that true wisdom consists in knowing you do not know and that the unexamined life is not worth living.

But while these two sentiments of the Socratic imperative are certainly the best known and serve as the fons et origo of humanist enquiry, there is a third, equally critical, part of the Socratic imperative that I had to leave out (since the video was testing weary viewers’ patience already).

It’s this bit, from the Apology.

“Don’t condemn me,” Socrates tells his Athenian jurors, “for if you do you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble stead who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.”

This idea is at the heart of what has been called the Socratic citizen. It is not enough to examine yourself and the world around you, to be willing constantly to challenge and test your beliefs. You have to be willing to make this critical agitation public: arousing, persuading, reproaching as Socrates puts it. We need, in short, more gadflies.

As such, I think Socrates, foremost a teacher, would have heartily endorsed the idea of the MOOC. While there has been considerable hand-wringing about MOOCs in the Academy (evidenced, for instance, by the unfettered Schadenfreude at the failed effort by San Jose State to use MOOCs as actual college courses), much of it is I think driven by an anxiety that the MOOC is commoditizing education and, as such, this represents the first step toward making the professor redundant to her own classroom.

Based on my (admittedly limited) experience, that is a highly misplaced concern – it essentially misreads the social function that the MOOC plays. The MOOC is not offering university education – it is offering university-level knowledge. That is a completely different thing. And, as such, it is hard to see how it not salutary in a social, Socratic context.
Ivory tower critics of the MOOC like to make much of the fact that the typical MOOC dropout rate is an eye-popping 95%, that the evaluation is (by necessity) anaemic, and that in comparison with a standard college course, it cannot serve as an effective teaching platform. All true. All irrelevant. If 100,000 students “sign up” for a course that is free, toward which they have essentially no commitment, it is absurd to consider this “enrolment”. At best, it is a vague expression of interest. That 5% of those people who register actually do finish is, to me, remarkable and encouraging.

For here’s the point. the MOOC offers an exceptional opportunity to spread knowledge, even if it does so in a way that fails – as fail it must – the rigorous standards of a prestigious higher level degree-granting institutions. That standard misses the point. As Rochefoucauld his maxim drew: C’est une grande folie de vouloir être sage tout seul. Opening up such avenues for knowledge acquisition is a critical part of the Socratic gesture. And if it helps – even marginally – people arm themselves with knowledge, ideas and concerns that otherwise they would be unlikely to acquire, then surely it is a beneficial thing. Who would look at the serious challenges we face and think we don’t need more gadflies! Socrates, surely, would approve.


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