May 16 (Bloomberg) — Professors across the U.S. are criticizing a rush to offer free online college courses, challenging a movement designed to spread knowledge and reduce higher-education costs.
Amherst College faculty voted last month against joining an initiative led by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The provost at American University issued a moratorium this month on such massive open online courses, or MOOCs. At San Jose State University, the philosophy department refused to use a free Web course from a Harvard professor.
As college costs soar, professors are concerned that MOOCs may primarily become a way for universities to reduce expenses. Even at Harvard, some faculty members said at a meeting last week that the movement could damage higher education by leading institutions to cut face-to-face instruction.
“We don’t want to be offering something that is misused,” said Ned Hall, a Harvard philosophy professor. “If I put a bunch of lectures online, I don’t think for a minute that’s a substitute for what a teacher can do in a classroom — not even close.”
Dozens of universities have been joining partnerships over the past few years that seek to put their most popular courses online for free. People from around the world can sign up for the courses, ranging from cooking to quantum mechanics. The classes, featuring online lectures, typically aren’t for credit and don’t lead to a degree. The companies are now exploring how to charge for some classes and let students get college credit.
EdX, a nonprofit organization founded by Harvard and MIT, includes 12 universities. Coursera, a venture-capital-backed for-profit company started by two Stanford University professors, has signed on more than 60 universities offering 370 courses to more than 3.5 million people.
Still, the companies have met with skepticism, even from college administrators. Only 3 percent of university presidents strongly agreed that MOOCs will improve the learning of all students, according to a Gallup Poll released this month.
“Online does not replace a person. It becomes a tool,” said Robert Lue, a Harvard biology professor who is the faculty director of HarvardX, the university’s branch of EdX. “We’re not at all interested in pushing anything down anybody’s throat. It’s up to the universities and faculty how they use it.”
Faculty are rightly concerned because the Internet is likely to reduce the number of professors and colleges over time, said Michael Horn, executive director of education for the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a San Mateo, California-based nonprofit research organization.
Christensen, a Harvard business school professor, has predicted that in 15 years, half of all universities will be out of business because higher education, with its skyrocketing costs, is ripe for technological upheaval.
At the same time, professors are raising legitimate objections because MOOCs — focusing on lectures by star professors — aren’t really a revolutionary form of teaching, Horn said. More interactive approaches may end up being more effective.
“I’m a skeptic,” Horn said of MOOCs.
MOOCs have the potential to improve instruction, according to Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera and an associate professor of computer science at Stanford.
“I personally hate to see MOOCs come between students and professors,” Ng said in a phone interview. “The reality is that your favorite professor is using online technology to free up more time to spend on teaching.”
San Jose State, a public university in California with more than 30,000 students, has used a course from MIT for a section of an electrical engineering class and is expanding the effort to other disciplines.