Chronicle of Higher Education: Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC

Posted by the Chronicle of Higher Education May 2, 2013.

By Steve Kolowich

Professors in the philosophy department at San Jose State University are refusing to teach a philosophy course developed by edX, saying they do not want to enable what they see as a push to “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”

The San Jose State professors also called out Michael Sandel, the Harvard government professor who developed the course for edX, suggesting that professors who develop MOOCs are complicit in how public universities might use them.

In an open letter this week addressed to Mr. Sandel, the philosophy professors decried a dean’s request that the department integrate a MOOC version of “Justice,” the Harvard professor’s famous survey course, into the curriculum at San Jose State.

“In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience,” the letter’s authors write, “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 letter is part of a brewing debate about how MOOCs might deepen the divide between wealthy universities, which produce MOOCs, and less wealthy ones, which 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.”

San Jose State’s Experiment

Under Mohammad H. Qayoumi, the university’s president, San Jose State has cast itself as a proving ground for the licensing model. In a pilot program, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one section of an introductory course in electrical engineering last fall 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 California State University system said it would push for similar experimentation with edX materials on 11 other campuses.

Like other faculty groups that have resisted outside providers of online courses in recent weeks, the San Jose State philosophy professors said they are not opposed to online and “blended” courses. But the professors fear that maintaining high quality might not be a top priority as university and system administrators navigate the current budget crisis.

In a statement to The Chronicle, San Jose State said it intends to leave faculty members in control of their courses, even where it is encouraging experimentation with edX materials like Mr. Sandel’s course.

“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 continued.

But the authors of the philosophy-department letter are nonetheless worried about what could happen in the future. “Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”

Peter J. Hadreas, chair of the philosophy department, said he believes that appealing to Mr. Sandel directly is 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 he knows little about the arrangement between edX and San Jose State, but he hopes the university does not force professors there to use any more material from his MOOC than they wish to use.

“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.” He declined to comment further.