Massive online courses draw more backlash from college professors

San Jose State University, one of the biggest academic supporters of the growing MOOC (massive open online course) movement, apparently has some vocal dissenters in its ranks.

In the past year, the university has welcomed MOOC providers like edX and Udacity with open arms — in addition to launching a first-of-its kind program with Udacity to award college credit for courses taken on its platform. The school has a growing partnership with edX and plans to create a dedicated resource center for California State University faculty statewide who are interested in online content.

But discord seems to brewing among some faculty.  This week, professors in the Philosophy department said they refuse to teach an edX course on “justice” developed by a Harvard University professor, arguing that MOOCs come at “great peril” to their university.

In an open letter (first published by the Chronicle of Higher Education) to the Harvard professor behind the course, the San Jose State faculty members argued that while they believe that technology can be used to improve education (by enabling instructors to record lectures so students can replay them, for example), they believe MOOCs could “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”

Will MOOCs lead to two classes of universities?

Not only do they worry about a future in which fewer perspectives are offered by universities (“the thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary — something out of a dystopian novel,” they say), the professors argue that the MOOC model will lead to two classes of universities.

“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 video-taped 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,” the letter says.

In the past year, MOOCs have picked up considerable momentum – Coursera, for example, says more than 3 million students have enrolled in a course and 62 top universities from around the world have signed on as partners. And they’re starting to show their effectiveness in blended learning classrooms. In a pilot program at San Jose State, a professor leading an introductory course on electrical engineering incorporated content from the edX course “Circuits and Electronics,” assigning students videos and problem sets to review outside of class. According to edX and San Jose State, the pass rate in that blended class was much higher than the pass rates in conventional classes.

More faculty members show resistance

But as MOOC providers carve out a bigger presence for themselves in higher education, university faculty members are beginning to raise compelling concerns. Last month, faculty at Amherst College voted to reject a partnership with edX, citing similar concerns about the long-term impacts of MOOCs on the U.S. university system. Namely, they argued that they would perpetuate an “information dispensing” model of teaching and lead to a centralized system of higher education that weakens middle- and lower-tier schools.

The San Jose example shows that just because university administrators are willing to embrace the MOOC format, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t deep resistance from their faculty. And, given that some believe that the MOOCs’ honeymoon period is winding down, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more examples like this emerge.