Michael Sandel, MOOCs, and the public good: On the justice of Justice


Michael Sandel is one of the world’s most prominent political philosophers.  He’s been involved with some of the most profound scholarly debates about justice for over thirty years, debating with such prominent figures as John Rawls and Robert Nozick.  I’ve been reading Sandel since I was an undergraduate twenty years ago, and am extremely sympathetic to his argument against a purely rights-based conception of justice.  His latest book, What Money Can’t Buy, stresses the importance of non-market values in assessing justice, and argues that commodification fundamentally changes the nature of the commodity being exchanged (this video expresses his position well).  While I’m not exactly a communitarian, neither is he, precisely, and I suspect that we agree on an awful lot.

Since 1980, Sandel has been teaching a large course at Harvard entitled Justice.  It’s a fantastic course, and one of the most popular undergraduate courses there.  It is, like many courses in political philosophy, lecture interspersed with Socratic discussion, and is pretty traditional in that respect.  In 2009, he made the entirety of one set of lectures for Justice (12 hours total) available online and on PBS.  So basically, you can go to the Justice Harvard website, or just to Youtube, and watch the lectures all the way through, for free.  This is, in my view, a wonderful use of Sandel’s time and energy and a real contribution to public intellectual life.

edX is a non-profit, massively open online course (MOOC) provider run by MIT and Harvard.  It is not a for-profit venture like Coursera or Udacity, and it does not directly provide credit-bearing courses at any institution.  It releases, free to anyone, course materials such as video lectures, in an online format, and also provides free (for now) ‘certificates of mastery’ if you do some online multiple-choice tests.  So a high school junior who’s keen on politics or philosophy, for instance, can register and get a huge head-start on college-level courses.  Anyone can follow along for their own personal enrichment, and any instructor can use these videos if they choose, as part of course content.

In March 2013, edX started to offer ER22x, JusticeX, online for free.  Basically, this consists of the entirety of the previously-released video lectures, as well as a set of five multiple-choice quizzes (5 questions) and a 25-multiple-choice question exam, a discussion board, poll questions, and a couple of other features.  edX also forms agreements with other institutions, licensing its content to be used by other nonprofit institutions (like universities) for credit – in other words, to allow other schools to integrate ER22x or other MOOCs into existing curricula.  So edX recoups its costs, and other schools get access to this high-quality content, or so the theory goes.

In May 2013, a controversy arose when San Jose State University administrators announced that they had signed a deal with edX to licence JusticeX for its philosophy students.  Administrators then asked the philosophy department at SJSU to be part of a program in which the equivalent course would use content from ER22x.  It was stressed, at the time, that no individual faculty member would be compelled to use JusticeX in part or in whole – faculty would retain academic freedom to that degree.  At the same time, it was clear that the goal of this contract was cost-saving: SJSU is putting a lot of money into this and only get a return if they can teach larger numbers of students than previously, with fewer faculty resources, in this and other courses.  So the idea that this was just going to be a free choice of faculty to use or not use this resource is not quite right either.

In response, the SJSU philosophy faculty did two things.  First, they declined the opportunity to participate in the use of ER22x in their teaching.  Second, they wrote an impassioned letter directly to Michael Sandel, and more broadly to the public, discussing their principled refusal to do so, on several grounds.  It’s clear and well-written and deserves close attention.  Sandel responded with a short but unequivocal letter indicating his support for the SJSU philosophers’ right to use his materials, or not, as they saw fit, and recognizing the potential for MOOCs to damage higher education, but also defending his own right to distribute his material through edX.  The chair of the SJSU philosophy department now has indicated that apparently ER22x materials will be used by the English department, although how that could work is entirely unclear to me and, I suspect, to anyone else.

An Intervention

I teach at an institution that in some ways (but not others) is like San Jose State: a public urban university with lots of minority students in a cash-strapped state.  On that basis, it is obviously a matter of interest to me how this debate proceeds.  I also think, on the basis of general principles of fairness and interest in the public good, it’s reasonable for anyone to have an interest about how MOOCs like ER22x are integrated into higher education and particularly public higher education.

It occurred to me, upon hearing about the SJSU / Justice controversy, and reading the SJSU philosophy department’s response, that this is indeed a question of justice, one that can be addressed directly within the terms raised by moral and political philosophy, and specifically the main issues addressed by Sandel himself in his Justice lectures.  While I am not a philosopher (of any stripe), I have certainly read in that field to some degree.  But I also recognize that I am not an undergraduate, and that I have never taken any online course (massive or otherwise), so I am writing, to some degree, from a position of ignorance.

Thus, in the interest of not spouting off mindlessly on that about which I do not know, and because I have a longstanding interest in the subject matter, and because (to be honest) I found myself with a light schedule this past month, I decided that I would go back to school (minimally, at least), and register in ER22x, watch the videos, and take the quizzes and the exam.  I have now done that.

Now what I’d like to do is to discuss ER22x, and the SJSU controversy, in light of some approaches that we might take to the key questions of justice involved, following the structure of Sandel’s Justice lectures themselves, using the sequential framework which he uses with his own students.  Ultimately I’m going to contend that there are several independent grounds for thinking that it is a bad idea for colleges to make these sorts of deals.

Preliminary Thoughts

First, even if you watch all 12 hours of Justice online, you are not getting a full course worth of lecture material.  Many university-level courses are three credit-hours, which means (supposedly) three hours of class time per week, over a term of thirteen weeks.  Let’s put it at 35 hours which is roughly what most of us (including me) actually teach in an average course.  So we note, from a purely arithmetical standpoint, that 12 is not 35.  At Harvard, there are tutorial sessions, taught by graduate students, to supplement the lectures, and there is also a discussion forum/blog.  Any course using the licensed material is going to need to do something else – so no one is talking about just having students watch videos and take multiple-choice tests for credit.

Second, other than the 12 hours of videos, the additional material offered by edX is extremely sparse, to say the least.  Minimally monitored discussion boards, canned ‘poll questions’, short multiple-choice exams, weekly ‘forum digests’ constitute the value that edX has added to the free, openly available videos which have been around since 2009.  It’s not entirely clear how that sort of material would ever be used by SJSU faculty or faculty anywhere else.  At best, it duplicates things that any university already has a license to (like Blackboard), or can easily/freely reproduce.  So basically what this contract does is turn into a market commodity that which is already freely available.

Third, and let me be very clear: Michael Sandel is a fantastic teacher and thinker whose presentation in Justice is outstanding.  I suppose that is part of the argument – that in some way, this brings one of America’s most popular lecturers, who also happens to be an exceptionally clear-headed scholar, to a massive audience.  It’s clear and well-presented, working towards a general argument presented in the final lecture of the series.  Sandel engages seriously with his students without interrupting them, but also keeps careful control of what (by the nature of the subject) could get out of hand.  The class is huge (something like 1000 in the room!) but he still learns quite a few names over the term.  He’s funny without devolving into a madcap style.  I learned a lot from it, because Sandel puts together the contrasts between thinkers in some novel ways.

Fourth, I am taking it as a given that Michael Sandel is not directly receiving any financial incentive when edX sells his content to other institutions.  I don’t have any direct knowledge of the matter, but I take him at his word that he doesn’t want to put other faculty out of a job, and obviously if he had such a stake in the enterprise then he would be inconsistent in that claim.  So let’s assume that edX is charging SJSU and, as a nonprofit, are recouping costs, but that no one at Harvard or edX is making a direct financial profit from this deal.

So I am starting from these premises and asking you to accept them as facts in evidence.  I am going to now proceed to make the case that there are serious grounds on which to suspect that this is, or has a high potential to be, a deeply problematic scenario.

An Argument from Utility

Sandel starts his course with the famous ‘trolley problem’ and a fascinating discussion of utilitarianism, following Bentham. Now, I’m not an especially good utilitarian, but I acknowledge (along with virtually everyone) that questions of utility do, indeed, come into play in matters of justice.  So let’s just ask, at a very basic level, who benefits and who is harmed, and how can we weigh these against one another?  This list is not meant to be exhaustive.

–    SJSU students might benefit from having the lectures of Michael Sandel as the basis for their coursework in philosophy;
–    edX clearly benefits from the licensing of the material (they are nonprofit but do need to recoup costs);
–    Sandel himself might benefit from greater exposure (which could ultimately lead to lucrative speaking engagements, etc.);
–    SJSU faculty might benefit from not having to construct their own lectures;
–    SJSU administrators might save money for the institution because they can have larger enrollments.

–    SJSU philosophy students might be harmed by not having ‘their own’ teachers – by the lack of engagement with the person delivering the course content;
–    SJSU faculty might be harmed if their academic freedom were compromised; they might be replaced by graduate students or adjuncts or ‘facilitators’, or they might be denied pay increases or other privileges;
–    SJSU as an institution pays edX and these costs, if not recouped in some way, would force cuts elsewhere, which would also harm other faculty and students;
–    Other departments at SJSU might be harmed if their enrollments were to drop due to the use of ER22x as a credit-bearing course;
–    Sandel’s reputation could suffer if he is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a crass commercialist cashing in on his fame, or as a narcissist;
–    The discipline of philosophy might be harmed if Sandel’s lectures became normative throughout many institutions, due to reduced intellectual diversity.

We could go on for a very long time trying to weigh these benefits and harms, and I think that reasonable people could disagree on their relative weights, and in any event, I do not think we know, fully, what the consequences are or would be.  We (including Sandel himself) certainly could not have predicted them in detail when ER22x was created.  Right at this very moment, all that has happened is a single department was invited to use this licensed material, and they said no.  We certainly do need to think about potential consequences, and we are right to be concerned about the harms, but the details matter to such a great degree that it is very difficult to proceed from this point using utility alone.  We need more than just some sort of hypothetical cost-benefit analysis to decide if this is a morally just course of action.

An Argument from Liberty

Now, if I’m not a good utilitarian, I’m particularly not a good libertarian, in that I see liberty as principally as a means to good ends decided by some other criteria, and thus not universally valuable.  In his Justice lectures, and in his own scholarship, Sandel pays close attention to the pure libertarian arguments of people like Nozick, and the more nuanced, rights-based approaches of people like Rawls.  Any positive argument for the use of edX is clearly going to need to invoke market principles and individual choice, so I need to pay it some attention.  In the case of the JusticeX controversy, I think this is, if not a morally wrong market-based decision, a bone-headed, idiotic decision by SJSU.

The simplest reason that the decision is stupid is that, by anyone’s reckoning, the principal value of this deal lies in Sandel’s lectures.  And these are all available for free, for students, for faculty, or for anyone else.  They have millions of views on Youtube.  And given that edX really isn’t providing much more than the lectures, it is a rather foolish decision for SJSU to pay to license this content for its own use, when it doesn’t have to do that at all.  Any professor at SJSU could have decided, at any time, to assign the Justice lectures as required viewing, without anyone having to pay anything.  Because they did not choose to do so, we can conclude (from this perspective) that they decided it was not a good idea.

I am confident that the terms of employment of SJSU faculty grant them this academic freedom without any significant qualification, and so, given that this contract was entered into freely, it is illegitimate for SJSU to compel faculty, against this agreement, to use any particular materials.  SJSU can of course spend its money however it wants, including to pay edX, but having done so without consulting its own philosophers, or asking them why they chose not to use the material in the first place, they can hardly be surprised when their purchase is viewed as foolhardy and ill-advised, and they can hardly be disappointed that their philosophers continue to choose not to use the edX material that they had been choosing not to use all along.

Of course, in actuality SJSU has not compelled anyone to do anything (yet?), and has couched its decision in terms of providing a new resource (in the same way that they might subscribe to a journal, or purchase access to a research database).  Where SJSU faculty see a difficulty is in the informal processes of power that exist within institutions, the potential for informal coercion either now or in the future, and the broader risk to what they see as a great social good in the current framework of learning in higher education.  Libertarian political philosophy doesn’t have much to say about those sorts of issues, so let’s turn to them now from different perspectives.

An Argument from Telos

In lecture 20, ‘Aristotle: Freedom vs. fit’, Sandel begins to outline a conception of justice that focuses on the good rather than the right.  Ultimately he’s going to use that in favour of a conception that integrates rights and virtue – this is his central contribution to the field.  He notes that debates over justice frequently are unresolvable solely by reference to some generic abstract right, but also require some conception of what is good.  Following Aristotle (and others), he insists that we think seriously about the purpose/goal (Greek telos) of things and institutions as part of our discussion of what is right.  I agree.

He illustrates this with the example of the golfer Casey Martin, who due to a disability could not walk the course and requested the PGA to be allowed to use a golf cart.  After the PGA denied his request, he took them to court, and eventually won at the Supreme Court.  Sandel uses this example to illustrate that deciding what is right in this case required the court to make a judgement about what is essential to the game of golf, and what is extrinsic or irrelevant.  Is walking the course essential to the game?  If so, then part of what determines the distribution of honours in the game must be one’s ability to walk the course.  If not, then not. But not answering the question isn’t really an option.

In a similar vein, we could ask: what is the purpose or essential nature of a professor?  If lecturing is the critical element in question, one could argue that any set of lectures will do, and that Sandel’s lectures are better than most, and certainly have demonstrated appeal, so why not adopt them?  Under this logic, SJSU professors who decide not to adopt these lectures are merely being self-interested and protecting their own jobs to the detriment of their students.  But if, in contrast, the role of professor is centrally about engaging students with one’s own views, and professing those views, then replacing a professor’s lectures with canned material is improper.  And similarly, if a student’s role is centrally passive, then it doesn’t much matter if the Socratic responses are given by SJSU students or Harvard students (from 2007).  But if actual engagement with the ideas is centrally important, then SJSU students are getting a very different learning experience than their Harvard peers.

Most faculty who I talk to insist, rightly, that their research makes their teaching better and vice versa.  Both the SJSU letter and Sandel’s response stress the importance of engagement with students, and this is, I believe, entirely correct.  Now, we can imagine a course that uses some Justice content in the same way that one might use, say, a textbook or a blog post as required reading, but in which students still meet three hours a week with full-time faculty, engage with different sorts of philosophical ideas, and write papers.  This is the sort of use which Sandel seems to find acceptable in his response, and I agree.  Although ER22x is not in my field, I’d strongly consider a course where I play the foil to some prominent figure’s video lectures in anthropology or linguistics, working as hard as I can to present opposing views, much as team-taught courses often rely on debate between instructors.  But the only scenario in which I see administrators having a real interest in me doing so is one in which they simultaneously are seeking to limit my engagement with students, e.g. by increasing class sizes or decreasing other resources.  I welcome the possibility that I may be wrong.

Now of course, one might argue that the university (who hire and pay faculty) and students (who pay tuition) are the only ones who can decide what is the nature and purpose of a professor, or of higher education in general.  Such a thinker would also have to agree that if what students demand is cheap canned content tested through multiple-choice exams that provides a credential, and universities want to supply it because it’s cheap, there are no grounds to question those choices.  We see a hint of this in this case already; this article on edX’s business model (referring to a different course) notes that “The early results were encouraging. The semester before the edX pilot, 60 percent of students passed the San Jose State course; 91 percent passed the edX-infused version.”  Students are happy, the institution is happy.  But is happiness the relevant consideration?  I can guarantee you that I can raise my pass rate for any course very easily, by watering down content or testing less rigorously.  My student evaluations will also go up, which could benefit me financially, since my raises are based in part on excellence in teaching.  And my (contractually-guaranteed) academic freedom gives me the right to do so.  Even so, I suspect that no one is going to argue that this would be the right decision.

On similar grounds, I argue that SJSU administrators have an obligation to ensure that the content they are purchasing from edX actually improves learning regardless of their cost savings or student interest.  That they have not done so – for instance, by closely working with philosophy faculty to see what needs they have –  suggests that they are improperly thinking only about factors that are not essential to the teaching of philosophy at their institution.  I’m not saying that they can’t think about costs, but the only way that this scenario would actually save money is by taking away a central and essential part of the mission of the teaching of philosophy at their institution.

An Argument from Sandel

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Michael Sandel’s special intervention in contemporary moral and political philosophy is to emphasize the ways in which over-commodification of things creates difficulties, and to seek limits for where markets should and should not intervene, or at least need to be limited.  He argues (and here I am not talking principally about Justice, but his more recent scholarship) that not only do we have a market economy, but we are turning into a market society, where even asking whether something should be turned into a commodity is seen as an improper or unaskable question.  It is taken as natural that market transactions are the only proper way to proceed.  He questions this using a series of key examples of entities and relationships that should not be commodified.

I contend that the professor-student relationship is exactly one of those relationships.  The reason that many faculty object to the ‘customer is always right’ model of education is that it produces an expectation that a professor is providing a specific product in exchange for money.  It suggests that if a student doesn’t learn, or isn’t happy with what they have learned, or doesn’t receive the ‘correct’ product (grade) for their perceived effort, that there is a problem with the teacher or the course.  From time to time I have tried to (at least) use a different analogy, which is that a professor is like a personal trainer (insofar as the product is largely dependent on customer effort), but even then, when I say things like that, I still fall into that same trap of treating the relationship as principally a commercial one.  This is exactly the sort of logic that Sandel’s work rejects, and he is right to do so.

Similarly, we would rightly reject a world where you could pay your professors extra for extra teaching time.  Slip me a twenty, and I’ll meet you after class for some extra tutoring.  Of course professors get paid for the work they do, which includes teaching, and students pay tuition based on the courses they take.  But we place professors’ work at a remove from the commercial transaction out of the recognition that some greater good is served by doing so.  From a consequentialist view, directly paying professors for their time deprives poor students from access to the extra tutoring and thus produces an unfair playing field.

It also, I think Sandel would argue, devalues the professor’s intellectual work of teaching by treating it as work for hire. This is not some sort of highfalutin appeal to the wonderful nature of professors.  Some professors, quite frankly, stink.  Some of them recycle old lectures.  Some of them harass their students.  And, of course, we all get paid.  The idea that the student has no entitlements whatsoever is even more nonsensical than the consumer model presented above.  But, in a fundamental way, turning to purchased course content devalues that content, and also the work that actual professors do each and every day.  It produces an environment where professors are constantly at the beck and call of incentives – financial ones, and also the sorts of pressures that adding this content creates within an institutional framework.

Sandel also notes (again, rightly, in my view) that because we are not social atoms, but carry around with us a set of experiences, obligations, duties, identities, and other qualities, that there are real risks entailed by social isolation from those who have different experiences from us.  In particular, he argues that growing isolation and inequality between social classes is threatening American democracy because of an inability to have meaningful exchanges between, for instance, rich and poor.  But this is exactly what SJSU philosophers fear will happen in the future: elite universities will provide high-quality instruction to a select few, while the vast majority of students (right now 80% of all students attend public colleges and universities) increasingly learn from canned content with glorified teaching assistants leading discussion groups, and with the resulting credentials being viewed as radically different in nature.  I grant that this is not a vision that has come to fruition yet, but anyone who functions within public higher education is clearly aware of these sorts of pressures to save money, to claim that sacrifices are necessary and then to offload those sacrifices onto students.  It is not an irrational fear, and it is one that the SJSU faculty are right to be concerned about when their institution claims, without evidence, that this purchased commercial material is going to be good for their students.

If I were to meet Michael Sandel on the street, I would ask him, “Aren’t you concerned that in monetizing your course, by licensing free content to edX so that they can sell it to institutions, you are crowding out other values, by the very terms of your own scholarship?  Aren’t you changing the character of Justice by turning it into a monetized product to be sold to other institutions?”  It’s entirely possible that he was unaware, when he permitted the creation of ER22x, of these sorts of potential abuses of edX, but now that they are clear, all of us need to be unequivocal.  For Sandel to publicly and freely release his lectures on the JusticeHarvard website in 2009 was an extraordinarily virtuous act that corresponds with his vision of the social good.  For him to then turn around and release it in a format that, while free, allows Harvard / edX to sell it to cash-strapped institutions, is inconsistent with that vision.


I don’t think you need to be convinced by all of the above arguments in order to find that the situation in which SJSU philosophy professors find themselves is deeply problematic.  I am not claiming, nor do I think it is sustainable to claim, that all online course content is unjust, or that all MOOCs are inherently bad.  I do think that, insofar as the edX business model is to sell otherwise free content to other colleges so that they can put pressure on faculty to dilute their content as a cost-saving measure, it is a serious problem, and it is not one that can be dismissed using the rhetoric of choice.  Understanding exactly why  it is a problem, and why so many faculty find these sorts of bargains to be untenable even when they are couched in the language of choice, is a challenge that we, as faculty, should expect to confront as such efforts become more pervasive.  I am glad that a set of lectures like Justice are available as a public good to help us in making that case.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: http://phrontistery.info. Blog: http://glossographia.com.

One thought on “Michael Sandel, MOOCs, and the public good: On the justice of Justice”

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