I first thought of writing this post over a year ago as a follow up to my piece “Against the Educational Uncertainty Principle.” I was struck by the way that recent interventions to address the various dimensions of higher educational crisis have made matters worse. MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, are a particular case in point. As I wrote then:

I worry about magical solutions: MOOCs, substituting television for face to face inquiry, even though using the web to strengthen educational practices makes sense to me. Because real interaction, with careful participation of students and faculty is a goal in this regard, I don’t see how online education is less expensive. I know that proper online teaching involves intense, time consuming, labor, with extended written exchange between students and faculty.

But when I started expanding upon this concern, thinking about how Public Seminar could present an alternative, I hesitated. We were just starting. It seemed hard to maintain convincingly that we were offering an alternative to MOOCs, with OOPS, an Open Online Public Seminar, until we had something to show. We now do, as a review of our first and second issues  compactly reveal.

Further, in a new initiative, Eli Zaretsky, Nancy Fraser and Johanna Oksala, and I are launching today, the OOPS alternative is clearer. Zaretsky is coordinating a group taught course, “Rethinking Capitalism” that is a key to our Capitalism Studies program. Fraser and Oksala are offering a related course, considering how developments in capitalism and feminism, and their relationships, point to the possibilities of social transformation. And I am offering a course on the Social Condition, building upon Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, developing this project with my colleague Iddo Tavory. We are interested in exploring how the dilemmas built into the social fabric, require illumination and personal and political action, not theoretical or social scientific resolution. With this in mind, the course will address issues such as those examined in Fraser and Oksala’s and Zaretsky’s classes.

These courses will be run in the normal fashion. There will be set syllabi, lectures and discussions, establishing dialogic inquiry, involving the mastery of subject matter and disciplined study. Students will be required to read the assigned readings, take part in class discussions and write term papers, and in addition, work to contribute to Public Seminar. These courses particularly, like many others at The New School for Social Research, have broader public implications. We are adding an online dimension so that we may address directly these implications and invite a broader public in, hoping to more openly educate, as well as to be more informed by public response. The Open Online Public Seminar won’t substitute but extend what happens between four walls, and bring what happens beyond the walls into the classroom.

MOOCs promise to revolutionize education. One brilliant scholar at an elite institution can reach thousands if not millions around the world by giving online lectures, with assignments and grading systems that can spread competencies at the highest levels. It’s the imagined world of the super professors with powerful reach, supported by the highly educated proletariat. As the story goes, one great professor at Stanford, Sebastian Thrun, heroically imagined a brave new educational world with himself as the hero. Start ups were founded. Investment was attracted. This and similar heroic actors forged on the new path. Many, such as the New York Times columnists, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman  enthusiastically support these developments. Others provide a more sober assessment, recognizing as Andrew Delbanco does, that MOOCS, are but “the latest in a long series of efforts to use technology to make education more accessible.” But also recognizing that they have not yet realized their goals, either educational or financial.

After hundreds of thousands enroll from around the world in various MOOC endeavors, only a small fraction continue to engage.

Ours is a more modest project. We seek not to revolutionize the project of critical social scientific education, but to strengthen it. OOPS will be challenged by public response. We, the professors and the students, seek to be informed by the public, as we try to inform a broader public. We will move step by step and see where it takes us. We introduce the courses today. During the next fourteen weeks, we the students and the faculty, will be posting our notes for and responses to the sessions. Perhaps we will add video recorded discussions coming from our meetings. Perhaps we will post contributions from the broader public of Public Seminar. We will try to be as creative as possible, and invite others to be creative along with us. As the author of the book The Politics of Small Things, I am thinking that following its insights: our little steps might add up to something quite big.

For now, I invite you to take a look at the classes: Rethinking Capitalism, Feminism, Capitalism and Social Transformation and The Social Condition. Also note that these courses are not only being extended through Public Seminar, but also are extending some of the key discussions that we have already been publishing on Public Seminar over the last year and a half. Take a look at our discussions of controversies: on capitalism, on feminism and on the social condition.

The proponents of MOOCs look for the technological magic bullet, hoping to find a technology solution to the crisis in education. The OOPS project is to use the new technology, the potential of the web, to extend education’s promise.