Published by the New York Times May 2, 2013.
By Tamar Lewin
San Jose State University has publicly committed to using online courses to bring in more students — and bring down costs — but its philosophy department is balking. Faculty members issued a blistering statement this week about why they will not use materials from an online course called Justice, taught by Michael Sandel of Harvard, an academic superstar.
Mohammad H. Qayoumi, the president of San Jose State, has pushed his university to experiment with new online technologies through pilot projects with both edX, the nonprofit Harvard-M.I.T. online collaboration that offers Dr. Sandel’s course, and Udacity, a company producing the massive open online courses, known as MOOCs.
But this week, the philosophy department sent Dr. Sandel an open letter asserting that such courses, designed by elite universities and widely licensed by others, would compromise the quality of education, stifle diverse viewpoints and lead to the dismantling of public universities.
“The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy depts. across the country is downright scary,” the letter said.
The letter came as a surprise to the provost, Ellen Junn, because, she said, no one had demanded that the philosophy department use the Sandel course. “All we ever did was let the deans know that these courses were available, and if they were interested in integrating any of the edX materials into their courses, they should let us know,” Dr. Junn said. “We’re never telling faculty what to use. They control the content of their courses.”
Several philosophy professors, however, said that there was administrative pressure to offer the Justice course. Indeed, the department chairman, Peter J. Hadreas, said that administrators had now arranged to offer it through the English department, reinforcing his concerns that it would be taught by professors who are not trained in philosophy and would be especially reliant on the edX materials.
Dr. Junn said she had e-mailed the philosophy department on Wednesday, the day she learned of the letter, to ask whether anyone wanted to discuss it, but was told there was no need, since the letter was mainly meant to raise the level of discussion.
The letter echoed concerns of many university faculties across the nation as MOOCs have spread rapidly. It emphasized the importance of individual interaction with students, and the fear that the courses would widen the gap between the education that elite universities can offer, and what is available to students at most other institutions.
“The move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university,” the letter said, “We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice.”
While expressing respect for Dr. Sandel’s scholarship and teaching, it also chided him, saying, “Professors who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors, dismantle departments and provide a diminished education for student in public universities.”
“My goal is simply to make an educational resource freely available — a resource that faculty colleagues should be free to use in whole or in part, or not at all, as they see fit,” Dr. Sandel said in a statement responding to the letter. “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. The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions.”
San Jose State philosophy professors said there were no dissenters from the letter. “We don’t have any illusions that we’ll change the world,” said Prof. Tom Leddy. “But our position needs to be heard. It’s been amazing to us how quickly we’ve moved to MOOCs, without faculty consultation. And now the state government’s pushing it. It’s great to have Professor Sandel’s lectures available free online, to use if we want. But if we buy them from edX as the basis for our classes, we would suddenly be second-class citizens. I would basically be a teaching assistant, and my students, unlike those at Harvard, could not question their professor.”
Anant Agarwal, the M.I.T. professor who heads edX, had a different view. “Really, we can think of MOOCs as the next-generation textbook, and just as it doesn’t take away from a professor to use a chapter of someone else’s textbook,” he said, “I don’t think it takes away from them to use as much or as little of our materials as they want. I really believe it frees them to interact more with their students.”
Faculty backlash against online courses has spread in recent weeks, as the Amherst College faculty voted against joining edX, and the Duke faculty voted down participation in Semester Online, offered by a consortium of universities.
Most faculty objections arise out of concerns about how online courses impinge on the professor-student relationship — and how they may lead to the privatization of public universities, and the loss of faculty jobs. “I started out very enthusiastic about the democratization of higher education through the global MOOCs, but I’ve gotten more cautious as my colleagues talk about what it might mean for jobs, at public universities,” said one professor, who taught a popular MOOC, but asked not to be named because he said he had not decided whether he would continue to teach them.
Many college presidents, too, are MOOC skeptics. In a Gallup poll released Thursday, most of the 889 presidents surveyed said they did not expect online education to solve colleges’ financial challenges or improve all students’ learning.