College’s rejection of edX highlights potential drawbacks of massive online courses

For the past year, massive open online course (MOOC) providers, like Coursera, edX and Udacity, have been riding high. Indeed, as of Coursera’s first birthday, which is today, the startup says more than 3 million students have enrolled in a course and 62 top universities from around the world have signed on as partners. The MIT and Harvard-backed edX and Udacity have also been growing steadily, announcing high-profile new partnerships and expanded programs for for-credit online classes.

But this week, elite liberal arts college Amherst snubbed edX after months of courtship, highlighting concerns about how MOOCs could change higher education over the long term. The faculty wasn’t opposed to online education in general but approved a proposal for plotting its own path as opposed to joining edX, according to Inside Higher Ed.

A few of the faculty’s concerns were Amherst-specific, the news outlet said. For example, some wondered if MOOCs, which by nature include tens of thousands of students, are inherently at odds with the college’s mission of encouraging education through small residential communities.  And others wondered how edX certificates bearing Amherst’s name would ultimately affect the school’s brand.

But others had larger doubts about the future impact of MOOCs on higher education.  Citing an internal report on edX, Inside Higher Ed said the school worried MOOCs could:

  • Perpetuate an “information dispensing” model of teaching, which preferences lectures and exams over seminars and teacher-graded papers
  • Take tuition dollars from middle-tier and lower-tier schools
  • Lead to the centralization of higher education in the U.S.
  • Exacerbate the star faculty system

Amherst’s decision follows a survey last month showing that while a majority of professors view the MOOC format favorably, less than a third of them believe students should be able to receive formal credit from their schools for successfully completing a MOOC. An earlier survey of university chief academic officers revealed a less glowing view of MOOCs – just a third of the respondents said they believe that their faculty accepts the value of online learning.

While professors and institutions are beginning to realize the benefits of experimenting with digital content and online learning formats, Amherst’s move shows that they want flexibility in determining how to do it and that institutions are willing to consider different models. That’s good news for other startups and companies in the space. The three big MOOC providers have received considerable attention recently, but colleges have plenty of options for bringing learning online, including 2U, Instructure’s Canvas Network and startup NovoEd.