Union Profs Protest MOOCs

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Union Profs Protest MOOCs

In an effort to innovate, to offer the best quality teaching, and to save money, some colleges are offering courses called MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs began as free and not-for-credit, but they are making their way into the mainstream of higher education, arriving amidst applause and controversy. The three largest MOOC providers are edX, Udacity, and Coursera.

Last fall San José State University (SJSU), part of the California public college system, began offering a MOOC created by edX, a nonprofit collaboration between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The class was successful in that 91% of the students passed, compared to the 59% of students who passed the same traditional course. The comparison is somewhat flawed because while the MOOC students watched MIT video lectures, they also participated in small group projects that may have greatly contributed to their grasp of the subject.

The SJSU pilot program, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was an introductory engineering course in electronic circuitry that future engineers must pass with at least a grade of C as a prerequisite to continue in the major. Historically, two of every five students earn a grade below C and must repeat the class or change their major (New York Times, 04-30-13).

Spurred on by the seeming success in the engineering class, SJSU is offering MOOCs to students in other departments. Objecting to renowned Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s online lectures being part of a philosophy course, professors in the SJSU philosophy department wrote an open letter to Sandel saying that they saw him as complicit in efforts to undermine their job security if the MOOC that features his lectures was offered at SJSU. The letter continued, “Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the [California State University system] are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.” The executive board of the San José State University chapter of the California Faculty Association union also issued a statement condemning the use of MOOCs. (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 05-02-13 & 05-09-13)

Duke University, American University, Amherst College, and Harvard University are among campuses where professors are objecting to for-credit MOOCs, saying it curtails their academic freedom. Professors in the School of Engineering at San José State University approved the online lectures used there as a means to improve student learning. In a statement to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the provost and vice president of academic affairs at SJSU said, “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.”