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Rejecting edX, Amherst Doubts Benefits of MOOC Revolution

By Amna H. Hashmi and Cynthia W. Shih, Crimson Staff Writers

By rejecting Amherst College’s participation in edX, professors at the liberal arts school expressed doubt in the benefits of Massive Open Online Courses for its faculty, students, and reputation. For the more than 60 percent of Amherst professors who voted against partnering with edX, reaching hundreds of thousands of students around the world does not align with the college’s mission to be “a purposefully small residential community.”

“Ultimately, we’re trying to help our residential students, and [it] wasn’t clear exactly what the MOOCs would allow us to do which we couldn’t do in other ways,” said Stephen A. George, a professor of life sciences at Amherst who introduced the motion against participating in edX. “It was really the massive, synchronous MOOC that did not seem to fit with our goals and values.”

Amherst Chair of Classics Rebecca H. Sinos, who is currently taking Harvard professor Gregory Nagy’s CB22x: “The Ancient Greek Hero” on the edX platform, said she does not believe that teaching online courses would provide her with the opportunity to reconfigure the curriculum for the benefit of her students.

Faculty members said that participating in edX would not only be ineffective in improving the classroom experience, but it would also disrupt the institution of higher education.

“Any MOOC course that I have seen so far is a poor substitute for a real academic course,” said Thomas L. Dumm, an Amherst political science professor. “But if we go the route of having these standardized courses by academic superstars, such as your own Michael Sandel, what’s going to happen to the rest of the professoriate?”

David W. Wills, an American studies professor at Amherst, said that the excitement about online education and MOOCs and the zeal with which they are being promoted makes it harder for schools and professors to refuse jumping on board.

“I think my colleagues...were trying to resist the hype and stay true to their deepest commitments as educators. Our hope is that we can make our way in the world of online education without abandoning those commitments,” Wills said. “If that proves impossible for us, that’s not just bad news for Amherst. It’s bad news for higher education.”

A 21-page unofficial memo written by an ad hoc group of concerned faculty in December 2012 lays out 10 questions about edX participation, questioning whether edX would enhance Amherst teaching.

“If our relation to EdX is an experiment, what is our hypothesis, and why are we testing this rather than another hypothesis?” the memo asked.

“Will Amherst’s voice be influential when confronted with the massive weight and reputations of Harvard, MIT, Yale, Berkeley, and the University of Texas, not to mention the influence of funders like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which works closely with EdX?)”

In lieu of joining edX, Amherst faculty members voted to move more courses and class materials online and to find additional ways to incorporate technology in the classroom.

George said that there are other ways to increase the virtual visibility of the college, and that Amherst pursuing online education on its own would allow more freedom to its professors.

The decision was far from unanimous, with approximately 70 out of 110 faculty members voting against creating AmherstX. Political science professor Austin D. Sarat, who presented the pro-edX motion, declined to comment for this story.

Amherst administrators and professors praised edX’s goals to increase access to education, and emphasized that the decision to reject AmherstX was not indicative of a general disapproval of the interface.

“We are disappointed that Amherst College will not be joining edX,” edX said in a statement. “Amherst is a wonderful institution and we would have been delighted to have them join. We acknowledge that online educational platforms are not the appropriate solution for all courses or all faculty.”

As edX approaches its one-year anniversary, it has expanded to include 12 institutional partners in its X Consortium. Only one of those institutions, Wellesley College, is comparable in size and mission to Amherst’s small, private liberal arts focus that prides itself on faculty-student engagement.

“My best guess is that because Wellesley is geographically closer to Harvard and MIT, they’ve got the advantage of a larger number of faculty collaborating with people who are participating in edX and are perhaps more certain about what they’re getting into,” said Amherst computer science professor Scott F. H. Kaplan.

“I think edX is being very selective, maybe too selective. One of the points that was made in the discussion was that edX seems quite proud to turn down a lot of institutions that might like to join,” said George. “They seem to be looking more towards the prestige of the name of the institution than really looking at which would be the best courses in many different institutions.”

—Staff writer Amna H. Hashmi can be reached at amnahashmi@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @amna_hashmi.

—Staff writer Cynthia W. Shih can be reached at cshih@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @CShih7.

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