Professors across the U.S. are criticizing a rush to offer free online college courses, challenging a movement designed to spread knowledge and reduce higher-education costs.
Amherst College faculty voted last month against joining an initiative led by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The provost at American University issued a moratorium in January on such massive open online courses, or MOOCs. At San Jose State University, the philosophy department refused to use a free Web course from a Harvard professor.
As college costs soar, professors are concerned that MOOCs may primarily become a way for universities to reduce expenses. Even at Harvard, some faculty members said at a meeting last week that the movement could damage higher education by leading institutions to cut face-to-face instruction.
“We don’t want to be offering something that is misused,” said Ned Hall, a Harvard philosophy professor. “If I put a bunch of lectures online, I don’t think for a minute that’s a substitute for what a teacher can do in a classroom -- not even close.”
Dozens of universities have been joining partnerships over the past few years that seek to put their most popular courses online for free. People from around the world can sign up for the courses, ranging from cooking to quantum mechanics. The classes, featuring online lectures, typically aren’t for credit and don’t lead to a degree. The companies are now exploring how to charge for some classes and let students get college credit.
EdX, a nonprofit organization founded by Harvard and MIT, includes 12 universities. Coursera, a venture-capital-backed for-profit company started by two Stanford University professors, has signed on more than 60 universities offering 370 courses to more than 3.5 million people. Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, signed on today with Coursera to begin offering courses starting in the next academic year.
Still, the companies have met with skepticism, even from college administrators. Only 3 percent of university presidents strongly agreed that MOOCs will improve the learning of all students, according to a Gallup Poll released this month.
“Online does not replace a person. It becomes a tool,” said Robert Lue, a Harvard biology professor who is the faculty director of HarvardX, the university’s branch of EdX. “We’re not at all interested in pushing anything down anybody’s throat. It’s up to the universities and faculty how they use it.”
Faculty are rightly concerned because the Internet is likely to reduce the number of professors and colleges over time, said Michael Horn, executive director of education for the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a San Mateo, California-based nonprofit research organization.
Christensen, a Harvard business school professor, has predicted that in 15 years, half of all universities will be out of business because higher education, with its skyrocketing costs, is ripe for technological upheaval.
At the same time, professors are raising legitimate objections because MOOCs -- focusing on lectures by star professors -- aren’t really a revolutionary form of teaching, Horn said. More interactive approaches may end up being more effective.
“I’m a skeptic,” Horn said of MOOCs.
MOOCs have the potential to improve instruction, according to Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera and an associate professor of computer science at Stanford.
“I personally hate to see MOOCs come between students and professors,” Ng said in a phone interview. “The reality is that your favorite professor is using online technology to free up more time to spend on teaching.”
San Jose State, a public university in California with more than 30,000 students, has used a course from MIT for a section of an electrical engineering class and is expanding the effort to other disciplines.
In a statement on its website, the California Faculty Association’s chapter at San Jose State said it wasn’t clear whether students with online degrees would be as easily employable and that the school’s administration should be lobbying for public funding to improve the traditional school.
In late April, the philosophy department wrote an open letter to Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, who offers a popular online course on justice.
“Professors who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities,” the group said.
Philosophy professors at San Jose State are already using the Internet to improve instruction, said Janet Stemwedel, an associate professor. Using a Harvard course on justice isn’t necessarily suited to the interests of San Jose students, many of whom are working full-time and commuting.
“We are not teaching abstract students,” Stemwedel said in a phone interview. “We are teaching particular students who are different every single semester.”
In a response to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which reported on the exchange, Sandel said the San Jose State professors had “a legitimate concern.”
“The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions,” Sandel wrote.
Using material from MOOCs is entirely voluntary, said Ellen Junn, San Jose State’s provost. It is intended as “an experiment,” not to supplant traditional teaching, she said.
“We never, ever pressured or suggested that faculty must do this,” Junn said in a phone interview. “For me, it’s all about student learning. If there are new ways to support students, I want to make them available for faculty.”
At Amherst, professors rejected a proposal last month to join the EdX group because it’s incompatible with the culture of the small liberal arts institution, Stephen George, a professor of life sciences, said in an interview. The faculty was particularly concerned that people who don’t go to the school would get a certificate for completing one of its classes through the MOOC, he said.
“It’s not only narrow self-interest on the part of faculty; it’s a concern for the quality of education in the U.S.,” said George, who has been at the Amherst, Massachusetts, college for 40 years. “The direction is to give credit for something that is not comparable to the education that we offer.”
Amherst instead voted to chart its own course in developing online education.
“We acknowledge that online educational platforms are not the appropriate solution for all courses or all faculty,” EdX said in a statement.
In Washington, American University issued its moratorium on MOOCs because of questions about the costs and benefits of the courses, according to a May memo to the faculty from Provost Scott Bass.
The university relies on tuition and is cautious about offering lectures for free online, Bass said in a phone interview. Professors will also have to invest time that could be devoted to on-campus students, he said.
“People respect that it takes time to do things right,” Bass said. “There’s no need to jump prematurely into anything.”
Jennifer Roberts, a Harvard professor of art history and architecture, raised concerns about MOOCs last week at a forum on teaching at the university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The online courses could end up reducing the number of tenured professors in the U.S. and students’ access to one-on-one teaching, she said in a telephone interview
“For someone who has no access to a university education, this is an incredible resource,” Roberts said of MOOCs. “But I don’t want this to replace the kind of education someone might have access to.”