Online Lecture Trend Among Elite Colleges Meets Praise And Caution

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — A new academic credential of unknown worth is circulating around the world, issued by affiliates of some of the most valuable brands in higher education.

These “certificates of mastery,” available for free to anyone with an Internet connection who passes an online course, come from BerkeleyX, MITx and HarvardX. Soon, there will be certificates from GeorgetownX.

But not from AmherstX.

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.

Millions of people worldwide have registered for massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, in the past year through Web sites such as edX, Coursera and others. Within days, Georgetown University plans to unveil its first two MOOCs.

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.

Amherst President Biddy Martin had favored joining edX, calling it “a helpful experiment.” But many on the faculty, given an unusual chance to vote on the matter, wondered why a prestigious liberal arts college devoted to “learning through close colloquy” should put its name on courses attempting to teach tens of thousands of people at once.

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.”

Leaders of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, who launched dX a year ago Thursday, vigorously disagree. They say MOOCs provide insight into how students learn, online and on campus, and in no way cheapen diplomas awarded to those who compete for admission, pay tuition and earn a traditional degree.

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