Chronicle of Higher Education: As MOOC Debate Simmers at San Jose State, American U. Calls a Halt

Published by the Chronicle of Higher Education May 9, 2013.

By Steve Kolowich

In the latest salvo in a debate over MOOCs that has drawn national attention, the San Jose State University chapter of the California Faculty Association has thrown its weight behind recent criticisms of the university’s partnerships with outside providers of massive open online courses—specifically, edX and Udacity.

Meantime, on the opposite side of the country, American University has announced a “moratorium on MOOCs.”

The California faculty union, which represents more than 2,000 professors on the San Jose State campus, has written a memorandum sharply criticizing the university’s president, Mohammad H. Qayoumi, for what the union sees as a preference for “private rather than public solutions” when it comes to online tools and content.

San Jose State has pushed various academic departments to use content from edX and Udacity—private entities that build MOOCs with materials from professors around the country—in their own courses.

But the university’s philosophy department last week said it would refuse to use content from an edX course led by a Harvard University professor. In an open letter, the professors declared a deep distrust of the San Jose State administration’s intentions in its partnerships with MOOC providers. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” they wrote. “Administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”

The faculty union echoed that distrust in the new memo, which was provided to The Chronicle in advance of its publication on the association’s Web site.

In the memo the union representatives write that Mr. Qayoumi, in his efforts to publicize the university’s collaborations with the MOOC providers, has been reluctant to defend professors against “a stereotype of classroom teaching based on some hackneyed Hollywood script of a teacher writing on a blackboard while his students sleep in boredom.”

Instead, the president has been all too eager to “celebrate private enterprise at the expense of the university and its collegial form of government,” the memo asserts.

Pat L. Harris, media-relations director at San Jose State, reiterated that professors have not been forced to use any materials from edX or Udacity. “In both cases, we have our faculty members behind the online efforts that the world is seeing,” said Ms. Harris. “We haven’t cut them out of it; in fact they’re at the core of what we’re doing.”

Regarding the professors’ deeper concerns—that the partnerships with outside companies will, in the long run, lead to the elimination of some faculty jobs and encroachment on the academic freedom of those who remain—Ms. Harris said she had not been part of any such discussions, though she is “leery to predict the far future.”

A ‘Moratorium on MOOCs’

Meanwhile, at American University, the provost sent a memo on Wednesday to the entire faculty and staff reiterating a “moratorium on MOOCs” while the university, in Washington, D.C., continues to draft a policy on how the massive courses would operate there.

The university is taking its time in deciding whether it wants to pursue institutional partnerships with edX or Coursera, another MOOC provider; or whether it wants to allow professors to teach MOOCs on their own, through Udacity or some other platform.

Contrary to institutions that have eagerly embraced MOOCs, American is purposely avoiding experimentation before it decides exactly how it wants to relate to the new breed of online courses. “I need a policy before we jump into something,” said Scott A. Bass, the provost, in an interview.

In his memo, Mr. Bass assures the faculty that American will not pursue MOOCs before addressing issues such as faculty oversight and release time. In the interview, Mr. Bass also mentioned unresolved issues like how MOOC teaching gigs might fit into decisions about promotion and tenure.

“There are serious questions to be asked, and answered, before we rush ahead,” the provost said.

In the memo, the provost lays out a series of proscriptions—formulated in consultation with the Faculty Senate—that limit how professors at American may teach online on a freelance basis.

For example, professors may not teach full courses online; they may not engage in any online teaching that costs students money or results in a certificate or course credit; they may not engage in any grading or assessment activities; and they must tell their deans about any freelance online teaching job, even if it falls within the rules.

“The university wanted reassurance,” said Barlow Burke, a professor of law and chair of the Faculty Senate, that American University “would be the primary employer of the faculty.”