Beginning next week MITx on edX will offer a philosophy course via a MOOC which will enable students to obtain a verified 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,” MITx says.

The announcement piqued my interest because the education discourse is so often dominated by the need to study “practical” subjects ranging from STEM to those such as accounting, commerce and business-related topics that segue into the needs and demands of employers. And here we had a big deal being made out of a philosophy MOOC. Would thousands of people be queuing up to sign on? Of course they would – and have been doing for this and similar courses in absolute droves.

According to my back-of-an-envelope calculation, more than 1,000,000 people around the world are or have been busy studying philosophy via various MOOCs. Indeed, OnLine Course Report shows that three philosophy-based courses have made it into the top 50 Most Popular MOOCs of All Time, including MITx on edX’s Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness, which in its latest iteration will include the certification option.

Announcing the grading move, Caspar Hare, in charge of the MOOC, said it was “a big deal … the first MITx humanities course to offer students the chance to write a paper and have it carefully reviewed by instructors”:

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, he added, students would develop “the critical reasoning skills necessary for success in any field or for an advanced degree”.

Lest you thought philosophy has no “practical” value, think again. According to the report, university philosophy majors consistently out-perform all other majors on the US Graduate Record Exam (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”.

Not only that, 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”. One reason for this perhaps is that those studying philosophy develop critical reasoning and argumentative skills, learning how to construct and analyse complex arguments and how to effectively communicate their ideas.

“Writing is essential to developing these skills,” said Hare. “Just answering multiple choice questions isn’t enough. You need to interact and bounce ideas off of other people.”

This is an excellent move in the ever-evolving MOOC world.