Guest Post: MOOCs for Vietnam?


I first familiarized myself with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in 2009 as an undergraduate student.  Since then, I’ve been a fan of sites like Coursera, iTunes U and edX, where I can hang around doing additional reading, submitting essays and listening to lectures by top professors from Harvard, Yale and MIT. Something I haven’t done and probably won’t be able to do in real life.

“The reason they’re unavoidable is that we live some answer to these questions every day.”

Over a period of three months in 2009, I woke up every morning just to find myself contemplating that quote, or the introduction to a lecture series by a professor whose name I’d never known, whose expertise had nothing to do with my work or education and whose nationality was American.

Every Thursday evening

Michael Sandel is the name.

During the aforementioned three-month period, Harvard professor Michael Sandel released two lectures, whose total length was 45 minutes, every Thursday via YouTube and his life project’s website Justice.  Taken together, his 24 lectures are nearly the same as Justice, a megapopular course at Harvard University.

A person who had never talked about politics before she was 20, whose knowledge of political philosophy was zero, and who had been overprotected as a Vietnamese, saw herself reasoning about several big moral questions, such as, “Is it right to steal the drugs that your child needs to survive?” and “Would you do it if killing five people meant saving one baby?”

From his lectures, free to the public, I’ve questioned, unlearned and learned the basis of political and philosophical thinking. The West’s major philosophers, including Aristotle, Bentham and Kant, have been mentioned so often by Sandel that I always refer to them when facing a moral dilemma, especially if it happens on a Thursday.

Special Value for Vietnam

Apparently Justice gave me the kind of Ivy League experience that would otherwise seem “too out of reach” or “too distant” in real life.

However, I believe its true added-value for me, as a Vietnamese, is that I received a kind of hand-holding on my philosophical journey, attempting to argue in a systematic way about Vietnam’s chronic issues. This assistance I treasure a great deal, especially given that Vietnam’s “market economy with socialist orientation” entails just so much confusion and that most of the available philosophical tools in Vietnam are outdated.

Taking Justice, for me, was both accessing a free world-class education and learning about alternative ways of reasoning that no Vietnamese professors or government officials would care or dare to teach the youth of Vietnam.

Image courtesy of Inside Higher Ed
Image courtesy of Inside Higher Ed

MOOCs and Traditional Universities

Since my first experience with MOOCs through Michael Sandel’s Justice was amazing, I forgot to question the implications that MOOCs may have for traditional universities.

Until recently.

On 29 April 2013, a group of San Jose State University professors wrote an open letter to Michael Sandel and expressed their opposition towards using Justice as part of or a substitute for their philosophy courses. The “protesting” professors mentioned the disadvantage of online, non-human learning. They also pointed to the prospect of universities laying off staff in favor of purchasing one-size-fits-all MOOCs for their enrolled students.

I believe the real problem here is not whether universities should incorporate MOOCs like Justice into their curricula, but whether universities must obtain a paid license to use them. No one would be foolish enough to trade MOOCs for real human interaction in the classroom.

For the moment, MOOCs do not have a lot of implications for Vietnam, but when more foreign universities take Vietnam seriously in their internationalization efforts, MOOCs will offend a lot of Vietnamese professors and staff.  In fact, the “threat” is already there, given that Michael Sandel’s Justice lectures have been fully translated into Vietnamese.

Vu Thi Quynh Giao

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