I discovered PEL in 2013 while engaged in a quixotic experiment in online education involving a form of learning making headlines at the time: Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs).
MOOCs came on the scene a couple of years earlier, after professors at Stanford were stunned when free online courses they offered to the world drew in hundreds of thousands of participants. The courses were on technology subjects, and two of the engineers who taught them (Sebastian Thrun, who taught a course on artificial intelligence, and Andrew Ng who, taught a course on machine learning) went on to create companies (Udacity and Coursera) dedicated to bringing an expanded catalog of free college courses to the world.
By the time I had discovered MOOCs, Harvard and MIT had gotten into the act, creating the non-profit edX that represented an East Coast rival to the two aforementioned Silicon Valley upstarts (I mean startups). Meanwhile, public debate over this new form of learning was characterized by hysteria, with MOOC boosters like Tom Friedman declaring that the end of the traditional university was upon us just as a backlash set in (triggered, interesting enough, by philosophy professors) claiming massive open courses to be educationally worthless.
What these fans and foes had in common was near total inexperience actually taking MOOCs, which made discussion of their value abstract and more about educational politics than pedagogy.
My personal experience (having taken only one MOOC—a logic course taught by Duke University) was similarly shallow. And so I set off to take massive open learning on a genuine test drive by taking enough free online courses to completion to mimic the requirements of a four-year undergraduate degree.
That project, dubbed Degree of Freedom, would compress this four years of learning into twelve months (partly to generate data that was needed sooner than later, partly to gain attention à la Julie and Julia) and involved taking the equivalent of 32 free courses (mostly MOOCs) organized around distribution and major requirements of a liberal arts college. And the major I chose for my faux degree was philosophy.
This choice of majors was driven by a genuine interest in the subject, a desire to study something new (I had majored in chemistry during my original undergraduate career), and a curiosity over whether a technology-enabled learning format that originally focused on science and technology subjects had grown to the point where the completion of a “degree” in humanities was possible.
The public-facing side of the project involved daily blogging, an alternating weekly newsletter and podcast, and ultimately a book on the subject. Much of this research and writing is still freely available, and an answer to the question of whether my free degree was equivalent to a traditional expensive one can be found here and here. (Warning: having studied philosophy, my answer to this question involves making the case for both sides of the issue.)
A couple of years have passed since completing this experience with more recent “studies” consisting of reading and listening to PEL podcasts. But, as PEL fans know, one is never the same after dedicating time to an examined life (partial or otherwise).
Certainly my thinking has become more organized as logic and other reasoning techniques moved from subjects of study to tools applied to complex philosophical arguments. And exposure to a wide range of philosophical ideas and schools has had direct bearing on professional matters that ostensibly have nothing to do with philosophy per se. For example, I am helping to build a new graduate school of education with a team of educators who are devotees of Dewey the educational pioneer, who I came to know as a third in line (along with Peirce and James) of the great Pragmatic philosophers (Pragmatism having become one of my faves, for better or for worse).
Most importantly, the process of doing philosophy (the raison d'être for PEL) taught me the benefits of not leaving any aspects of life unexamined. This includes matters professional, personal, and political, and it is to that last subject I shall turn to next.
–Jonathan Haber is an educational researcher whose Degree of Freedom web site describes his attempt to replicate (l)earning a BA in philosophy in one-year. He is the author of MOOCS: The Essential Guide from MIT Press and Critical Voter: How to Use the Next Election to Make Yourself and Your Kids Smarter. He is currently helping to build a new graduate school of education.