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Massive online courses draw more backlash from college professors

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San Jose State University, one of the biggest academic supporters of the growing MOOC (massive open online course) movement, apparently has some vocal dissenters in its ranks.

In the past year, the university has welcomed MOOC providers like edX and Udacity with open arms — in addition to launching a first-of-its kind program with Udacity to award college credit for courses taken on its platform. The school has a growing partnership with edX and plans to create a dedicated resource center for California State University faculty statewide who are interested in online content.

But discord seems to brewing among some faculty.  This week, professors in the Philosophy department said they refuse to teach an edX course on “justice” developed by a Harvard University professor, arguing that MOOCs come at “great peril” to their university.

In an open letter (first published by the Chronicle of Higher Education) to the Harvard professor behind the course, the San Jose State faculty members argued that while they believe that technology can be used to improve education (by enabling instructors to record lectures so students can replay them, for example), they believe MOOCs could “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”

Will MOOCs lead to two classes of universities?

Not only do they worry about a future in which fewer perspectives are offered by universities (“the thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary — something out of a dystopian novel,” they say), the professors argue that the MOOC model will lead to two classes of universities.

“One, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant,” the letter says.

In the past year, MOOCs have picked up considerable momentum – Coursera, for example, says more than 3 million students have enrolled in a course and 62 top universities from around the world have signed on as partners. And they’re starting to show their effectiveness in blended learning classrooms. In a pilot program at San Jose State, a professor leading an introductory course on electrical engineering incorporated content from the edX course “Circuits and Electronics,” assigning students videos and problem sets to review outside of class. According to edX and San Jose State, the pass rate in that blended class was much higher than the pass rates in conventional classes.

More faculty members show resistance

But as MOOC providers carve out a bigger presence for themselves in higher education, university faculty members are beginning to raise compelling concerns. Last month, faculty at Amherst College voted to reject a partnership with edX, citing similar concerns about the long-term impacts of MOOCs on the U.S. university system. Namely, they argued that they would perpetuate an “information dispensing” model of teaching and lead to a centralized system of higher education that weakens middle- and lower-tier schools.

The San Jose example shows that just because university administrators are willing to embrace the MOOC format, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t deep resistance from their faculty. And, given that some believe that the MOOCs’ honeymoon period is winding down, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more examples like this emerge.

12 Responses to “Massive online courses draw more backlash from college professors”

  1. A. Weisner

    I tried out a couple moocs, and to be honest with you, it was pretty watered down content – it is not really a Harvard course. These classes are made to sell to the masses, and so the expectations are pretty low – it is more like edutainment.

    I think the value of the college degree will be lowered if real courses are replaced by these watered down online videos. It is unfair, but public colleges will be burned while the wealthy private colleges profit. Go 1% !

    I definitely won’t be hiring any mooc graduates at my company after what I have seen. In a global economy, we can always find educated workers overseas, but I do feel bad for American students who they might be robbed of a real education.

    • I’m actually enjoying my MOOC courses, I agree that it is not a degree replacement, but think it does have a role to play going forward. In my opinion it will become a kind of pre-university bridge that get students from school ready to go to universities. Higher education institutions will also be able to pick who they want based on the MOOC results, and companies get a better educated employee, even if the employee did not go to an institute of higher education

    • Cgx18

      You are missing the point. We are at the very beginning with MOOCs. What they will be five years from now is not what they are now. The current University system is antiquated. I have a BA and two Masters degrees from what are considered elite private universities. I have plenty of experience with the current system and it leaves a lot to desired. My experience with the three MOOC classes I have taken has been excellent.

  2. Michelle Chen

    I don’t understand why a professor in San Jose State University is asked to teach an edX course on “justice” developed by a Harvard University professor. Why cannot the San Jose professor teaches his/her own? If the Harvard professor’s lecture is of high quality, then why waste time developing another course with the same material? Everyone should just watch the one developed by the Harvard professor.

    I do agree interaction with professors can be important, however it depends on the topic/subject and also the learner’s preference. For example, when I took a psychology course, I did want to have interaction with my professor, to have debate with him. Yet, when I took a computer science course, I only wanted interaction when I was stuck with a programming homework – in fact, the people who helped me were TAs not professors.

    Just my 2 cents. Overall, I wish more online courses will become available and let students/learner choose themselves. That’s why I am building a site ( to help fellow self learners.


  3. NoOne

    You can say that the technology is the issue. However as is almost always the case, it’s just a tool. The issue is that we have WAY too many knowledge workers compared to the jobs available to them and despite the over supply the cost of college is sky rocketing which is diluting any possible return on the investment in a most bachelor degrees or lower. We need more things massive online courses to combat that trend, and to expand past the areas traditionally covered by academia.

    In the end, instead of embracing a potential new digital audience that can span the globe they’re going with knee jerk protectionism which benefits no one. My jobs have been disrupted by technology change many times over 20 years. I’ve lost them because of it. They’re finding out they’re not immune either. Welcome to being the latest elevator operators.

  4. paulkandel

    As Kary said, only a small percentage of professors are really good teachers; they get training in their field of expertise, not in teaching, and most are known for their research and writing, not their teaching.

    Additionally, I have never understood the need to have frontal lectures. First of all, frontal lectures are a poor way to learn unless the lecturer and topic are both exceptionally well suited to that medium. Secondly, in large lecture classes in many universities, students already have very little interaction with the professor. To me, the real promise of MOOCs is enabling students to access the very best lectures, and then to augment the lectures with the more hands-on activity and interaction that really drive learning.

    Many universities today already have distance learning programs, and those are basically smaller, more tightly managed versions of MOOCs. I am now finishing up an MS through distance learning (well, somewhat hybrid). Going in I did not know what to expect, but I have been very pleasantly surprised and have actually found the medium when done right more effective than frontal lectures and solo work.

    As for professors getting replaced: I have never understood people wanting to have intro courses from an expert in the field. A knowledgeable grad student could often do just as well as a professor. You need professors to mentor more advanced students or give the really groundbreaking lectures periodically, but not for explaining the basics. Paying professors lots of money to do less expensive work wastes their time and rips off students.

  5. They seem to express some valid concerns (” exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary” – indeed!). But MOOCs are happening, whether they want it or not. Professors with valid concerns should actively engage with the MOOC system to ensure that their concerns are addressed and mitigated in the way MOOCs are designed, developed and taught. They are doing a disservice to themselves and to the university system if they reject MOOCs outright.

  6. An expected position since this technology threatens their employment.

    What they are missing is that only a percentage of professors are good lecturers, and this allows more students to learn from the best lecturers. So I wouldn’t describe the situation where “privileged students” get the real professor. In fact it may very well be the opposite.

    • Dave M

      Yes but lecturing is not the only component of teaching!

      That is precisely the point that objectors are making, so you are reinforcing their position.