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
"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
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 colloquy?"
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
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
"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
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
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 to fail.
"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
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
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]
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
"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