If one of the core philosophies of online learning is to democratize education, then a new verified certificate option for a philosophy course on MITx on edX — the massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by the Institute — brings the concept full circle.

Starting Aug. 29, Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness will enable students to obtain a verified ID certificate and have their work graded and commented upon by professional philosophers. Learners from any background, anywhere in the world, can pursue the certificate option to add credibility and value to the accomplishment of completing the course.

“This is a big deal — the first MITx humanities course to offer students the chance to write a paper and have it carefully reviewed by instructors,” says Caspar Hare, who will be running the popular MOOC for the third time. “Listening to lectures and reading books is great, but philosophy is all about taking complex ideas and organizing them in a simple way. You learn by writing, specifically writing to someone.”

By writing philosophy papers and interacting with instructors online, students develop the critical reasoning skills necessary for success in any field or for an advanced degree. In fact, philosophy majors consistently outperform all other majors on the GRE, coming out on top in two of the three components of the grad school exam — Analytical Writing and Verbal Reasoning — while also excelling in Quantitative Reasoning. Philosophy majors also tend to earn more, with mid-career salaries in the 90th percentile when comparing all majors, and way ahead of all other humanities.

In many ways, the Introduction to Philosophy online course is now built to reflect the residential course Hare also teaches. The very act of writing pushes a student to synthesize ideas in a way that can’t be replicated. Yet having a trained philosopher provide individual feedback is crucial to knowing how much of the material was truly understood. That engagement is an essential part of the pedagogical experience — just not one learners from Boston to Bangladesh can typically experience together.

As for the MOOC itself, the material is engaging and relevant for students of all levels. The course has two goals. The first is to introduce students to the basic topics philosophers consider: theories around knowledge, beliefs, and consciousness; the existence of God and notion of proofs; the debate between free will and determinism.

One learner, who was taking a philosophy course for the first time, says: “It feels like a new dimension in my thinking has been opened up and I see the world differently. I am so grateful for this opportunity and feel that I have acquired a new skill.”

The second goal of the course is to move from discussion to development of critical reasoning and argumentative skills. Students learn how to construct and analyze complex philosophical arguments, and then how to clearly and effectively communicate those ideas. The new instructor grading and feedback feature enables that process to take shape.

“Writing is essential to developing these skills,” explains Hare. “Just answering multiple choice questions isn’t enough. You need to interact and bounce ideas off of other people. And from MIT’s perspective, the new feature helps bring to light different ideas from people with different cultural backgrounds. Writing enables these insights to pass through the community, which benefits everyone.”

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Material from a press release was used in this report.

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