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Long Distance Wisdom
Rick Lewis on the joys of taking a philosophy degree from your armchair.
One of the less well-known benefits of the internet has been a huge expansion in the possibilities of studying philosophy. The old dream of making university education available to all, through correspondence courses, radio and television broadcasts and residential study weeks, inspired the foundation of Britain’s Open University in 1969. However, over the last dozen years or so the internet has transformed distance learning and as a consequence many more universities now offer faraway students the chance to partake of their wisdom. The opportunities include MOOCs and internet-based distance learning degrees.
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) allow you to watch university lecture courses by leading academics while drinking cocoa in your own armchair. A particularly well-known philosophy example is the course on Justice offered by Professor Michael Sandel of Stanford University. While often highly enlightening, MOOCs aren’t meant to provide individual tuition, an all-round education in the subject, or indeed a qualification.
By contrast, distance learning degrees are actual university degree courses taken from home, under the supervision of university lecturers. This means that many, including mature students, who would once have found it impossible to rearrange their lives sufficiently to take a philosophy degree can now do so wherever they live in the world and regardless of their working hours.
MOOCs are generally free to take, and have a high drop-out rate. Distance learning degrees cost students considerable sums of money, due to all the marking, tuition and supervision involved. In fact, the tuition fees paid by distance learning students are often comparable to those paid by on-campus students, though of course there may be hefty savings in terms of living expenses and accommodation. The cost alone means that students start with a high level of commitment and relatively few drop out.
The money inevitably attracts sharks; there are unaccredited degree mills offering impressive but utterly worthless ‘degree certificates’ in return for ‘life experience’ and a large fee. The differences between such operations and genuine universities are hardly subtle, and a little online research should easily save you from being burned. See the table for a non-exhaustive list of reputable universities offering philosophy degrees via distance learning. (There are some others, including Oxford, that offer short non-degree courses online).
|University||Country||Distance Learning Degree|
|Deakin University||Australia||BA Philosophy|
|Massey University||New Zealand||BA Hons (Philosophy), MA Philosophy|
|UNISA (Univ. of South Africa)||South Africa||BA Philosophy, Politics & Economics, MA Philosophy|
|Bangor University||UK||MRes Studies in Philosophy & Religion|
|Open University||UK||BA (Humanities with Philosophy), MA Philosophy|
|University of Aberdeen||UK||PhD Philosophy|
|University of Birmingham||UK||MA, PhD|
|University of Staffordshire||UK||MA Continental Philosophy|
|University of Wales Trinity Saint David||UK||MA, MPhil, PhD|
|University of Illinois||USA||BA Philosophy (firstname.lastname@example.org)|
You might think that the reliance of these courses on teaching over the internet in various forms means that it doesn’t matter in the slightest where you live relative to any of the universities on our list. Indeed, a number of these universities specifically court ‘international students’. However, one potential obstacle is that for some (not all) of the degree courses listed, it is necessary to physically come to the university to sit final exams. Some may also require physical attendance at a summer school or other short course at some stage within the degree. Therefore it is particularly important to read the course requirements carefully on the relevant website. But of course, you would do that anyway.
Some universities offer a distance first degree (Bachelor of Arts or BA) in philosophy, while others offer graduate degrees such as the MA (Master of Arts) or research degrees such as the MPhil or PhD. Academic qualifications required for entry are likely to be equivalent to those for traditional on-campus courses. You are unlikely to be allowed to take an MA, MPhil or PhD unless you have a suitable first degree (BA or possibly BSc). For many who have taken a first degree in philosophy in a conventional way, a distance MA offers a very practical way to continue to pursue their interest in the subject.
Degrees can often be taken either full or part-time. Support from academic staff will most likely take place via email, telephone and/or Skype. You will have to write assessed essays and, particularly for higher degrees, probably a dissertation too.
Taking a degree course from home is very hard work, and you won’t have the emotional support of fellow students around you, nor the stimulation of informal conversations with them in the bar about your topic of study. You still have to write essays and assignments, and meet deadlines. You still need to sit exams or fulfil assessment requirements in order to receive your degree. However, you can take the degree without having to uproot your life, resign from your job, abandon your children, sell your house, or put the dog up for adoption.