May 20 2013

A Reality Check for MOOCs: Amherst Says No

Amherst, a prominent liberal arts college, doesn’t believe MOOCs hold true to the school’s mission.

Here’s how the Washington Post leads off a recent article about MOOCs (massive open online courses): “A new academic credential of unknown worth is circulating around the world.”

That’s a bold statement, considering the incredible popularity of free online-learning tools and the major investments that prominent colleges are making in MOOCs. The Post article rattles off a number of colleges, including Berkeley, MIT and Harvard, that have joined edX, a MOOC platform. Offering MOOCs is more than an investment in education — it’s an acknowledgement of the globalization of teaching and learning. Why, then, are some colleges resisting change? Nick Anderson explains:

The Amherst College faculty in April rejected a proposal to join the online education venture called edX, a setback for one of the leaders in a fast-growing movement that seeks to open up elite schools to the masses and improve their teaching. The episode offered a rare window into the intense debate in academia over whether the proliferation of free online courses will undermine or strengthen top-tier schools.

But as the novelty of MOOCs wears off, educators are asking hard questions about how the sites will make money and what colleges stand to gain. Academic powerhouses sense a pivotal moment of risk and opportunity. Some are plunging forward. Others are holding back.

MOOCs are “greatly hyped,” Amherst biologist Stephen A. George said. “What is it without any human interaction with a professor? To say that is education is very hard to swallow.”

Amherst is the first elite college to publicly reject MOOCs. While the school’s faculty made it clear they do not reject online learning, they are wary of outsourcing any part of their learning process. Interestingly, Amherst’s mission statement says the school intends to bring students together “in order to promote diversity of experience and ideas within a purposefully small residential community.” An investment in MOOCs would be in direct opposition to the nearly 200-year-old mission.

Should colleges like Amherst evolve with their contemporaries, or should they continue to deliver education the way they always have?


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