Why Some Colleges Are Saying No to MOOC Deals, at Least for Now

Frank Ward, Amherst College

Stephen George, a biology professor at Amherst College, lobbied for it to stay out of edX. He embraces the idea of online teaching but says Amherst doesn't need to join a group to do it.
April 29, 2013

Amherst College, known for its selectivity, is accustomed to sending rejection notices. But when the liberal-arts beacon this month turned down an invitation to join the exclusive partnership of colleges offering massive open online courses through edX, it nonetheless drew surprise from many corners of academe.

Colleges have clamored to be part of the high-profile consortiums run by edX, a Cambridge-based nonprofit, and Coursera, a Bay Area start-up—often with little input from faculty members. The pace of adoption has shocked even the founders of the MOOC platforms, who are veterans of a higher-education sector notorious for its tortoiselike reflexes.

But Amherst's rejection of edX, decided by a faculty vote, could mark a new chapter for MOOCs—one in which colleges revert to their default modes of deliberations and caution. "I think we're at the early stages of that honeymoon period coming to an end," says Richard Garrett, vice president and principal analyst of the consulting company Eduventures.

If MOOCs portend a "tsunami" of change in higher education, as observers have said, then many colleges have been willingly swept in by the undertow. In less than two years, massive online courses have grown from side projects of a few techie professors into companies fueled by tens of millions in venture capital funds and the imaginations of the entire education industry. For universities worldwide, membership in edX or Coursera has become the hottest ticket in town.

The nonprofit edX, founded last year by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been particularly careful about whom it lets in the door; it has 12 institutional partners but has received inquiries about membership from more than 300 colleges, according to Dan O'Connell, a spokesman. Meanwhile, Coursera has gotten so many inquiries that Daphne Koller, a co-founder, says she has lost track.

"For a while it really felt like a rocket ship, with folks desperate not to be left behind," says Peter Stokes, executive director of postsecondary innovation at Northeastern University's College of Professional Studies.

"I think that phase has passed, and the folks who are starting to do the work are starting to realize that these efforts ... have real costs for the institution," says Mr. Stokes. "And I think that's creating a little bit more sobriety about how folks view the opportunity."

Offering MOOCs through edX is hardly free. There are options available to institutions that want to build their own courses on the edX platform at no charge, but for partners who want help developing their courses, edX charges a base rate of $250,000 per course, then $50,000 for each additional time that course is offered; edX also takes a cut of any revenue the course generates.

There are also significant labor costs that come with offering MOOCs. A recent Chronicle survey found that professors typically spent 100 hours, sometimes much more, to develop their massive online courses, and then eight to 10 hours each week while the courses were in session. This commitment amounted to a major drain on their normal campus responsibilities.

Those known costs, combined with uncertainty about whether the MOOCs will make enough money for colleges to recover their investments, might be enough to deter some institutions, says R. Michael Tanner, a vice president and chief academic officer at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities—especially public universities that are facing budget cuts.

In the debate at Amherst, which boasts a $1.64-billion endowment, money was no object, and the faculty committee devoted to weighing the pros and cons of joining edX did not seem worried about MOOCs as a distraction to teaching and service.

Rather, the committee cited a number of philosophical qualms. MOOCs run counter to Amherst's commitment to "learning through close colloquy"; they might "perpetuate the 'information dispensing' model of teaching."

On a larger scale, MOOCs might create a "new and different kind of competition" that could jeopardize more-vulnerable colleges, if not Amherst itself; they could "enable the centralization of American higher education" and "create the conditions for the obsolescence of the B.A. degree."

The committee also wondered if edX's need to bring in money to remain sustainable could lead it to do things the college would consider unsavory, like selling aggregated student data to outside companies, or putting too much emphasis on credentialing.

While joining edX might allow Amherst to fight those battles from within the consortium, "there might, realistically, be little opportunity to shape the organization within due to the size and type of member institutions," the faculty committee wrote.

On Their Own

In the end, the faculty vote was not close: 70 to 36 against joining edX, with five abstentions.

Tekla A. Harms, a professor of geology, was among those in favor of teaming up with edX. The risk to joining the MOOC parade was low, in her view, since the proposal limited Amherst's commitment to a trial period of four or five years. The risk to remaining on the sidelines is higher than the risks of joining up, says Ms. Harms. "If there's something at the forefront of education, Amherst College should be there," she says.

Stephen A. George, a professor of biology and neuroscience, led the call to stay out of edX. But it was not the idea of venturing into online education so much as the thought of joining a MOOC consortium that deterred him. "The fact that Amherst needed to join this organization—that really seemed most difficult to accept," says Mr. George.

The biology professor's motion, which was passed in the vote, proposed that Amherst explore online teaching technology outside the context of the major MOOC groups. New ways of teaching that include "flipped" classrooms and online videos—"that is within reach," says Mr. George, "and that is what we really want to do."

The way the edX debate unfolded at Amherst reflects a healthy change in the way a leading institution might approach the question of how to incorporate online education into its curriculum, says Mr. Garrett, of Eduventures. Knee-jerk rejections and bandwagon-jumping are two sides of the same coin, he says.

"They thought this through," says Mr. Garrett, "in a way that they wouldn't have a few years ago."