Students at Massachusetts Bay Community College this year got a rare opportunity to take a computer-science course designed and taught online by some of the top professors in the field.
The 17 students in a programming course at MassBay's Wellesley Hills campus watched recorded lectures and completed online homework assignments created by professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and offered as a massive open online course through edX, a nonprofit MOOC vendor co-founded by MIT.
The MassBay students met for regular class sessions with Harold Riggs, a professor of computer science at the community college. Students were required to come for only 90 minutes each week, rather than the customary three hours. And in addition to graded in-class projects from Mr. Riggs, the students completed homework assignments and three major exams written by the MIT professors and graded automatically by edX. At the end of the semester, the students who passed the class got three credits from MassBay and a certificate of achievement from edX.
Some higher-education forecasters believe this is the future of public education. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is supporting the MassBay experiment, has devoted millions to seeing if MOOCs produced by elite universities could help boost student success at financially strapped state colleges.
But where state legislators and college administrators see an opportunity, some professors see a threat—if not to their jobs, then to their freedom to teach a course as they believe it should be taught.
Academic freedom has recently come to the forefront of a debate over the use of edX materials at San Jose State University, which has been encouraging its professorss to experiment with content and tools originally developed for MOOCs. San Jose State, along with MassBay and Bunker Hill Community College, has been using edX content in its credit-bearing courses on a trial basis. If successful, those trials could pave the way for edX to license its online materials to colleges—a model that is seen as a potentially important revenue source for the Cambridge-based nonprofit and other MOOC providers.
"If a massive online course is a resource that you can use as you as the individual faculty member sees fit, then I think it works terrifically," says Martin D. Snyder, acting executive director of the American Association of University Professors.
"It's too simplistic to turn your back on this and say it's universally, unequivocally bad," says Mr. Snyder, who teaches online as an adjunct for the University of Maryland University College. "That's nonsensical. What we're saying is, the faculty need to be involved in the planning" for how the courses are used.
'A Talking Textbook'
Last month professors in the philosophy department at San Jose State wrote an open letter worrying about a future in which local faculty become mere caretakers of courses designed by professors at elite universities. "Our very diverse students gain far more when their own experience is central to the course and when they are learning from our own very diverse faculty, who bring their varied perspectives to the content of courses," they wrote.
The university's provost quickly pointed out that the administration is not forcing its faculty members to use the edX courses in any particular way. And Khosrow Ghadiri, who is so far the only professor at San Jose State to actually use an edX course in his teaching, says he hardly felt like a cipher for another professor's teaching.
Mr. Ghadiri, a lecturer in the electrical-engineering department, says he thinks of the edX course as "a talking textbook that you can pick up any chapter of it, augment it the way you want it, add lecture to it, and use it to teach your students effectively, if it helps."
Last fall Mr. Ghadiri began using recorded lectures by Anant Agarwal, a professor at MIT and the president of edX, the nonprofit MOOC provider, in his introductory course in electrical engineering. Students passed at a much higher rate than usual—91 percent, compared with 59 percent and 55 percent in two other, more traditional sections of the same course.
The San Jose State instructor ran his edX-infused course as in a fairly standard "flipped" format. He would instruct students to watch Mr. Agarwal's short lectures before each class session. Mr. Ghadiri spent the first 10 minutes of each class answering questions from his students about the MIT professor's lectures. Then he typically spent 10 minutes giving his own lecture: a summary of the most salient themes from Mr. Agarwal's lectures, plus some original material.
After that, Mr. Ghadiri divided the 86-student class into groups of three and had them do worksheets on the lecture material. The instructor and his teaching assistants fanned out across the classroom, observing the teams and giving them tips when they were stuck. Finally, Mr. Ghadiri gave the students a quiz to take on their own. Mr. Ghadiri says he wrote all his own quizzes and worksheets.
"We need a talented faculty to engage with the students," says Mr. Ghadiri. "The only thing that I see in this pilot experiment is that the faculty get more time to spend with the students one-on-one."
Value in the Marketplace
But some professors might not be granted that much freedom.
Chandrakant Panse, a professor of microbiology at MassBay and president of the union chapter there, does not think MOOCs will make local faculty members obsolete. But Mr. Panse does think an edX certificate, acknowledging the completion of an MIT course, is worth more to students than three credits at a community college. And that could pose a threat to academic freedom in the future.
"The MIT certificate has a lot more value in the marketplace than three course credits at MassBay—absolutely," Mr. Panse says. In the context of a student's job search, says the professor, an edX certificate "is going to matter tremendously more than saying I have three credits at MassBay for doing a programming course."
Considering the possibility that edX courses will become part of the curriculum at MassBay, Mr. Panse believes that students will want the opportunity to earn edX certificates in addition to credit toward their MassBay degrees. That demand could prompt administrators to require that MassBay professors hew closely to the curriculum prescribed by the MIT professors.
Mr. Riggs says he has not faced any such pressure so far. In fact, the professor says he plans to use more homegrown content and assessments when the course starts up again next fall. But Mr. Panse is worried that his colleague might not always enjoy that amount of discretion.
At San Jose State, the administration has answered the concerns of its professors by assuring them that there are no current plans to cut faculty jobs or undermine academic freedom.
"San Jose State faculty members have always been able to choose what textbooks they offer in their classrooms, how to structure their curriculum, et cetera, and that has not changed," says Pat Harris, a university spokeswoman.
But to the extent that the professors want the administration to pledge that academic freedom will not be abridged in the future, the two sides appear to be at an impasse. Ms. Harris said she is not in a position to make promises on behalf of future administrations.
"What we do know," she says, "is we need to do all we can to best serve our students."
Today colleges remain in an experimental mode when it comes to MOOCs. And for professors, the biggest concerns are not with what is happening today, but what those experiments could lead to in the future.
Correction (5/28/2013, 12:50 p.m.): The original version of this article stated inaccurately that San Jose State and other colleges were using grant money to license edX materials. In fact, no licenses have been assigned in this pilot phase. The text has been corrected.