Date: Apr 19, 2013 1:39 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: EdX Rejected By Amherst College
From INSIDE HIGHER ED, Friday, April 19, 2013.See
By Ry Rivard
After months of wooing and under close scrutiny, edX was rejected
this week by Amherst College amid faculty concerns about the online
course provider's business plans and impact on student learning.
Amherst professors voted on Tuesday not to work with edX, a nonprofit
venture started by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology to provide massive open online courses, or MOOCs. In
interviews, professors cited a wide range of reasons for rejecting
edX -- which currently works with only 12 elite partner colleges and
universities -- starting with edX's incompatibility with Amherst's
mission and ending with, to some, the destruction of higher education
as we know it.
Amherst - an elite liberal arts college where seminars are the norm
and professors pride themselves on spending an hour on each student's
paper - has been looking for companies with which it could experiment
with online education.
After rejecting for-profit companies, including 2U, Amherst decided
to explore a deal with edX.
Amherst President Carolyn (Biddy) Martin left the final decision
about the deal in the hands of her faculty. She expressed public
support for working with edX but said she saw risks either way.
After months of deliberation on campus, the faculty met Tuesday night
to decide if Amherst should join edX. The administration said it
would respect the faculty vote. The faculty voted on a substitute
motion offered by an opponent of the edX deal that concluded Amherst
should chart its own course rather than join edX. Seventy faculty
members then voted to formally approve that motion, 41 voted against
and five abstained.
"It's not something they reject totally," Martin said in a telephone
interview, referring to the faculty's online ambitions. "They just
don't want to do it right now through a firm that may or may not end
up allowing us to do what our core values suggest we do in the form
of teaching and learning."
Some faculty wanted to expand Amherst's repertoire and experiment
online. Even professors who opposed a deal with edX say the college
should look at doing more online. But the majority of faculty came to
doubt edX on a number of fronts.
In a statement, edX said it was disappointed its courtship had ended
the way it did. "We are disappointed that Amherst College will not be
joining edX," the venture said in a statement released by a
spokesman. "Over the past several months we have had many productive
meetings and wide-ranging discussions with Amherst's administration
and faculty. Amherst is a wonderful institution and we would have
been delighted to have them join. We acknowledge that online
educational platforms are not the appropriate solution for all
courses or all faculty."
Some Amherst faculty concerns about edX were specific to Amherst. For
instance, faculty asked, are MOOCs, which enroll tens of thousands of
students, compatible with Amherst's mission to provide education in a
"purposefully small residential community" and "through close
They also expressed broader concerns about the direction in which edX
and others like it are taking higher education.
For instance, edX wants to offer its users completion certificates
bearing Amherst's name. This worried some faculty, as well as Martin.
EdX also tried to sell Amherst by dispatching representatives to the
campus over the course of several months. Those trips did not assuage
concerns and, at some points, may have inflamed them, according to
Adam Sitze, an assistant professor of law, jurisprudence and social
thought, opposed efforts to join edX. He said faculty members raised
questions that edX "didn't and in some cases couldn't" respond to.
"Relative to the internal study of MOOCs that we did, edX was not
persuasive," Sitze said.
There was an actual internal study by a nine-member committee of
faculty and administrators. The 16-page report lays out the pros and
cons of making a deal with edX. (The administration provided the
whole document to Inside Higher Ed but asked that it not be shared.)
The report talks at length about how faculty members could use edX to
experiment with online content and how difficult it might be for
Amherst to try to replicate edX's expertise. The document stresses
that Amherst was being invited to pay to join edX for some costs --
$2 million for five years, perhaps. Amherst officials asked
themselves if they could chart their own course with a similar amount
of money and found the risk of failure may be greater if Amherst was
on its own.
But officials worried that Amherst could still end up on the losing
end of a deal with edX.
"Would Amherst get as much from the collaboration as edX would get
from Amherst?" the report said in one of the "cons" sections. "EdX
claims to want to revolutionize all of higher education, on campus as
well as off. Are we experimenting with them, or are they
experimenting with us?"
Tekla Harms, a geology professor who wanted to partner with edX, said
the college should have at least tried to see if Amherst's small
traditional classes could benefit from MOOCs and if MOOCs can be
improved by Amherst's current teaching methods.
"The question is, can you build a bridge between the two?" she said.
"And I think we should have tried to see if we could."
EdX has 12 partner institutions, including Harvard and MIT. Among the
members, only Wellesley College is a small liberal arts institution
David Cox, a math professor who favored having Amherst offer courses
on edX, said he wanted to give small liberal arts colleges more say
in the direction of online learning. "That's one reason I wanted us
to join: I think they actually need to talk to the people at liberal
arts colleges," he said. "I think they could have learned something
from us having us there at the policy making part of it. So I'm a
little sad because of that."
Sitze, though, compared edX and MOOCs to a litany of failed dotcoms,
including other education ventures with similar ambitions. He said
MOOCs may very well be today's MySpace - a decent-looking idea doomed
"What makes us think, educationally, that MOOCs are the form of
online learning that we should be experimenting with? On what basis?
On what grounds?," Sitze said. "2012 was the year of the MOOCs. 2013
will be the year of buyer's regret."
Concerns About the Brand
In the end, the feeling that Amherst was experimenting with its own
brand seemed to doom the partnership, said faculty on both sides of
Cox said certificates became a sticking point because it wasn't clear
what they would be used for. "For some people it's a piece of paper;
for some people, they will claim they have the equivalent of a
college education because they have 48 certificates," he said.
Several faculty worried Amherst would lose control of the meaning of
the certificates, particularly in light of an effort in California
that would force the state's public colleges to grant credit to
students who finish unaccredited courses that are approved by a new
Martin also said "it wasn't very clear that certificates would be
required" when Amherst began its talks with edX.
An edX spokesman said "one of the integral elements of the edX
learner experience is the opportunity to earn a certificate of
mastery. Institutions are given the option of offering designated
'beta' courses that do not include the opportunity to earn
certificates of mastery."
Faculty also worried about edX and its broader effect on higher
education, particularly edX's plans to grade some student writing
using only computer programs.
"They came in and they said, 'Here's a machine grader that can grade
just as perceptively as you, but by the way, even though it can
replace your labor, it's not going to take your job,' " Sitze said.
"I found that funny and I think other people may have realized at
that point that there was not a good fit."
In its internal report, the nine-member MOOC committee also worried
that "the MOOC format will perpetuate the 'information dispensing'
model of teaching (e.g., lectures, followed by exams)."
At Amherst, courses are taught in seminars and students are never
given a multiple-choice exam. In MOOCs, most exams are
multiple-choice and written work is graded by peers rather than
professors - at least until MOOC providers begin to roll out software
to grade student writing.
Some Amherst faculty members worried about their peers at less elite
The internal report expressed concern that MOOCs will "take student
tuition dollars away from so-called middle-tier and lower-tier
institutions," "enable the centralization of American higher
education," "intensify the tiered structure of American higher
education" and "may exacerbate the star [faculty] system."
The chair of the neuroscience program, Stephen A. George, led the
opposition to joining edX. He said edX representatives "proudly said
they turned down 300 institutions that wanted to join them." That
caused him to believe the purposes of partnership served edX's
interests, not Amherst's or students'. He compared edX to industrial
"Would we join some sort of agribusiness company that was taking over
family farms and producing junk food if they offered us some
incentive to do it?" George said.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244