Faculty Backlash Grows Against Online Partnerships

Staff Photo, Justin Ide, Harvard News Office

Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor, taught an online course that San Jose State U. asked its philosophy professors to use in place of their own instruction. They said no.
May 06, 2013

Many professors recognize that online education is changing the landscape of academe. But faculty members at several colleges are making it clear that they will not be steamrolled.

Philosophy professors at San Jose State University last week wrote an open letter saying they refused to use material from an edX course, taught by a famous Harvard University professor, for fear that California State University administrators were angling for a way to eventually gut their department.

"Let's not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education," they wrote.

At Duke University a week earlier, an undergraduate-faculty council voted down a push by the provost's office to offer small online courses for credit through 2U, a company that sells an online platform and support services to colleges.

"While paying Duke tuition," wrote the authors of a letter to the student newspaper, signed by 75 professors, students would "watch recorded lectures and participate in sections via Web cam—enjoying neither the advantages of self-paced learning nor the responsiveness of a professor who teaches to the passions and curiosities of students."

Those rebuttals followed closely the decision by the Amherst College faculty to reject an invitation to produce massive open online courses through edX.

In each case, the professors were careful to make clear that they oppose not online technology, but rather the notion of collaborating with an outside vendor that might pose a threat, in the long term, to their principles. The professors said they had no problem climbing aboard the online train, as long as they get to help plan the route.

The philosophy professors at San Jose State, in particular, sensed a latent, existential threat in their university's collaboration with edX, a nonprofit MOOC provider formed last year by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Under Mohammad H. Qayoumi, president of San Jose State, the university has cast itself as a proving ground for MOOCs as a teaching tool in "blended" online courses. Mr. Qayoumi has advocated for allowing students to take massive open online courses for credit to decrease the time and money they spend getting a degree from San Jose State. That means, of course, denying professors on his campus the opportunity provide their own lectures.

"How different is the basic algebra course taught in Boston or California or wherever?" Mr. Qayoumi asked last month in an interview with The Chronicle.

A Brewing Debate

Last fall, in a pilot program supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a San Jose State professor teaching one section of an introductory course in electrical engineering drew heavily on recorded lectures and other materials from "Circuits & Electronics," a MOOC from edX.

Students in that section passed at a much higher rate than those in the traditional sections. In April, Mr. Qayoumi doubled down on the experiment, announcing that San Jose State would road-test more edX courses on its campus, including courses in the humanities.

The president's vision for the university disturbed the philosophy department. So when a dean asked the department to try using a MOOC by Michael Sandel, a Harvard government professor, as a tool to help teach a San Jose State course, the professors said no.

In an open letter addressed to Mr. Sandel, the San Jose State professors explained that they did not want to enable what they saw as a push to "replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities."

They further suggested that professors who develop MOOCs, such as Mr. Sandel, would be somewhat culpable if platform providers, like edX, and public universities, like San Jose State, use those materials to phase out local departments and professors.

"In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience," the philosophy professors wrote to Mr. Sandel, "we believe that having a scholar teach and engage with his or her own students is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students."

The San Jose State letter touches on a debate about how MOOCs might deepen the divide between the wealthy universities that produce them and the less-wealthy institutions that would buy licenses to use those MOOCs from providers like edX.

The authors say they fear "that two classes of universities will be created: 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 videotaped 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."

A Direct Appeal

In a statement to The Chronicle, San Jose State said it intended to leave professors in control of their courses, even where it is encouraging experimentation with edX materials.

"In the interest of clarity, our collaboration with edX does indeed locate the responsibility for the course solely with our faculty members, who will determine how much, or how little, of the edX course materials they will incorporate into their blended courses," wrote Ellen Junn, provost and vice president for academic affairs.

"The administration would never impose or mandate these teaching methods on faculty members," Ms. Junn added. "We sought to make the new technologies available to our faculty so they might experiment and implement these methods in ways they see fit to meet our standards of high-quality learning environments; in ways that meet their course learning outcomes; and so that they may assess the impact on students."

Members of the philosophy department are nonetheless worried about what could happen in the future. Peter J. Hadreas, the department's chairman, said he believed that appealing to Mr. Sandel directly was the best way to spark a public conversation about the possible unintended consequences of superstar professors' working with edX and other MOOC providers.

"I think he will answer it in good faith," said Mr. Hadreas. "I don't know if it will change his mind, but I would be interested to hear his response, and it might bring about some reconsideration."

In a statement to The Chronicle, Mr. Sandel said that he knew little about the arrangement between edX and San Jose State, but that he hoped the university would not force professors there to use any more material from his MOOC than they wished to.

"The worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education," wrote Mr. Sandel. "The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions."

"I strongly believe that online courses are no substitute for the personal engagement of teachers with students, especially in the humanities," he said.

Duke Deal Scuttled

Meanwhile, at Duke's undergraduate college, professors drew a line in the sand last month on online education: Massive online experiments are fine, but there will be no credit-bearing online courses at Duke in the near future.

The university's Arts & Sciences Council, governing arm of the undergraduate faculty, voted down a proposal to join a consortium of top colleges offering for-credit online courses through 2U, a company that specializes in real-time, small-format online education. The council passed an alternative resolution affirming that it intended to pursue online education—just not like this, right now.

Duke signed a contract last year with 2U pledging to develop online courses, the first of which would be offered on the 2U platform in September. But a late push by skeptical faculty members, many of whom resented the Duke administration's not consulting with them before entering into a preliminary agreement with 2U, set the stage for a close vote.

In a letter published in the student newspaper one day before the vote, 75 professors came out against the proposed partnership. The next day, their representatives on the Arts & Sciences Council killed the proposal by a 16-to-14 vote, with two abstentions.

While noncredit MOOCs have dominated headlines, 2U has been ushering top institutions into online education at a more modest pace and scale. The company, formerly called 2tor, has developed fully online graduate programs for several high-profile universities since 2008, including Georgetown University and the University of Southern California.

More recently the company has made inroads at undergraduate programs. In November it announced that it would work with undergraduate faculty members at 10 institutions, including Duke.

Colleges in the consortium would offer online courses that resembled those they were accustomed to teaching on their campuses. Students would log in to virtual classrooms at designated times, along with their professors. They would be able to see and hear one another well enough to have group discussions. Courses would be small and would be restricted to tuition-paying students enrolled at member colleges.

At Duke, after it was announced that the university would be part of 2U's consortium, several faculty committees spent months refining a proposal that would eventually have to pass a vote by the Arts & Sciences Council for the plan to proceed, said Thomas W. Robisheaux, a professor of history and chair of the council.

Limits were placed on the number of credits students could earn online. Caveats were created to ensure that Duke's on-campus offerings would not be cannibalized. Individual academic departments would be allowed to opt out of the program, and the university as a whole would commit to only three years of involvement.

In all, the proposal was reviewed and modified by three standing faculty committees in addition to the ad hoc committee appointed to draft it, said Mr. Robisheaux.

"Those of us who serve the council," he said, "were taken aback by the argument that there wasn't adequate faculty input."

But many professors had taken umbrage at the notion that Duke's provost, Peter Lange, had signed a contract with 2U with little faculty consideration.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Lange said that the faculty council's vote did indeed supersede the contract, and that Duke would not be part of the 2U consortium.

Chip Paucek, 2U's chief executive, said he was not worried that the loss of Duke would imperil the future of the company's undergraduate consortium. "I do believe there is very strong interest in this level of institution to continue to experiment with online education," he said. The company still plans to offer 11 courses from other top colleges in the fall, he said.

Emma B. Rasiel, an associate professor of economics at Duke, was slated to teach a course on behavioral finance on 2U's platform. She said she was disappointed that her colleagues had scuttled the partnership. Based on her interactions with 2U so far, she said in an e-mail interview, she was confident that she and the company "would have produced just as rigorous and pedagogically valid an educational experience as those I aspire to provide in a regular classroom setting."