April
19th 2013
Amherst faculty tells edX: drop dead.

Posted under: American history, class, happy endings, jobs, students

I love the Amherst faculty’s commitment to educational rather than “edupreneurial” (or edupredatory) values.  To be sure, there was the huge issue of institutional mission versus the mission–so far as anyone can figure it out–of these unproven for-profit ventures we call MOOCs:

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?”

Then there was the issue of the ill-thought out vision of edX itself, as well as the sheer incompetence on display in edX’s sales approach, compared to the thought that the Amherst faculty had invested:

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 faculty members.

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 also the bald fact that edX put a $hitty offer on the table.  Behold, the Underpants Gnome theory for how to make money on the interwebz!

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.

Yes, you read that right:  edX wanted Amherst to pay them $2 million!!!  A-hahahahahahaha!  Clearly, edX has more to gain with any partnership with Amherst than Amherst has to gain from edX, let alone to pay millions of dollars for that privilege! (Or is that in fact how MOOCs plan to make their money:  pump the bubble up as high as they can so as to sell it to the suckers fall for their stupid pitch, take the money, and run?  Sadly, it looks like they’ve had some success with this with other prestigious institutions, albeit mostly with institutions like the University of Virginia whose governance is not in the hands of the faculty but rather is in the hands of dumba$$ “business leaders” appointed by governors regardless of their ignorance of higher education.)  To continue:

Sitze. . . 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.”

Finally, the Amherst faculty displayed unusual sympathy with educational values not just at Amherst, but with the effects that MOOCs might have on universities like mine.  (And because they’re Amherst, their move will be noticed and perhaps embolden other faculties to reconsider jumping aboard the MOOC train.)

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 institutions.

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.”

Thank you, Amherst.  When family members of mine are looking for colleges in another decade or so, I’ll be sure to remember your faculty’s commitment to our shared values.

13 Comments »

13 Responses to “Amherst faculty tells edX: drop dead.”

  1. Indyanna on 19 Apr 2013 at 11:34 am #

    The putsch is on with this stuff. The promotional e-mails that I get from former publishing companies that have transformed themselves into disruptive platform facilitators would make you want to both laugh and puke. (I say former publishing companies, although they would still be happy to sell you a suite of actual books if you want to be that obtuse to the things cool that are “taking education by storm.”] There has to be some core borg from which this stuff is all emanating, whether it appears in a stupefying e-vite from your on-campus center for learning and measuring, or your former book rep who is now task-directed to sell you things that “students just love these days,” or some visionary out of Stanford with a cache of secret stock options. How clusters of faculty are being induced to fall for these things, and thus become embeds for the industry on a racquetball court near you, would make a great 60 Minutes segment, if we could dig Morley Safer out of an early grave. You could even watch it on your device, while steeping in a botanical sauna and dreaming up cool new student performance engagement indicators.

    Meanwhile, I’m trapped on a public transportation device with limited wifi access, trying to keep up with the events in Boston today. The pictures are eerie.

    But plaudits to our colleagues in Amherst.

  2. koshembos on 19 Apr 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    My hat is off to the Amherst faculty for having what seems like a shared opinion and even more for expressing it forcefully.

    In my university, using the generic online, the dealings with the changes in teaching is closely controlled by the VP-dom. In the meetings, there was never a discussion about how and what. It’s always administration and appearances. Even a mild supporter of online like me finds hirself disappointed.

  3. quixote on 19 Apr 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    Isn’t it right here on this very blog where I’ve read many times that you’ll notice the elites don’t educate their own children in correspondence schools MOOCs?

    Amherst is there for the cream of the crop. Of course they better remember their mission! I give them props for coming out against tiered education.

  4. Undine on 19 Apr 2013 at 6:52 pm #

    My hat is off to Amherst, too–and one of the best uses of a mission statement I’ve ever seen.

  5. tony grafton on 20 Apr 2013 at 4:35 am #

    It’s true that Amherst is an elite school which has always educated the children of the elite. But my understanding is that they’ve also gone farther than most such schools in diversifying their student body to the extent that they can–which would be consistent with this story. How great to see core values upheld. (And, as Historiann and Indyanna suggest, to see some potential suckers refuse to buy the stupid bridge).

  6. Historiann on 20 Apr 2013 at 8:01 am #

    “Stupid bridge.” Ha!

    Here’s hoping that Professor Sitze is correct in his prediction that “2012 was the year of the MOOCs. 2013 will be the year of buyer’s regret.”

  7. Nick on 20 Apr 2013 at 8:32 am #

    +10 for you for the underpants gnome reference; +10 for Amherst for staving off yet another corporate incursion into higher ed!But are we losing the war?

    From this article on Standford’s web site:
    http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/april/online-learning-analytics-041113.html

    “We’re all humanists,” said Schneider, whose undergraduate degree is in English from Swarthmore, “and first and foremost we’re committed to the humans who are learning through these systems. On the other side of the sea of data there are people coming to MOOCs from a vast range of backgrounds, and we want to optimize systems to best meet their needs.”

    … ??? “Sure, we all appreciate and value humans. That’s why we’re optimizing all these technological systems to interact with them in the BEST way!”

    Whatever happened to PROFESSORS who “best meet” students’ needs? Is the human connection in higher education a notion that Stanford has cast aside in favor of these potentially lucrative MOOCs?

    More importantly, with Stanford all gung-ho about this stuff, is it reasonable to expect it to disappear? We need better, more stable jobs for people who have put in the time and money for graduate degrees. Period. And that doesn’t happen by “completing learners” to get online “positive feedback loops.”

  8. Matt_L on 20 Apr 2013 at 9:11 am #

    right on. This is at least one data point against Jonathan Rees’s post about how the ed reformers will pay one half of the professoriate to murder the other half.

    The more I read about the scholarship of teaching and learning history, the more I realize that lectures are the problem. MOOCs which are all lecture all the time, are the direct opposite of what needs to be changed in history teaching at all levels of education.

    More practice, more discussion, more reflection (for students and teachers).

  9. Historiann on 20 Apr 2013 at 9:13 am #

    Apropos of your call for jobs, Nick: you might appreciate this op-ed from the LA Times by David Kipen, “Stop Dissing the Humanities.” He calls for more federal, state, and local support for BRANCH subjects (Books, Readers, Artists, Newspapers, Critics, and the Humanities). He writes, “Politicians champion incentives for domestic manufacturing and housing starts to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Wouldn’t re-employed teachers and writers buy durable goods too?”

    One of the reasons I oppose most online “education” and MOOCs is that I don’t want to help students earn M.A.s so that they can work as online adjuncts or graders. Taking the humans out of the humanities, as you suggest, is more than counterproductive. It’s devastating for education, music, arts and letters, history, philosophy, etc.–destructive of the very things that dignify us as human beings.

  10. The Alchemist on 21 Apr 2013 at 9:26 am #

    Thanks, Historiann! I especially like your point, above, about the perils of using MOOCs to create even more underpaid adjuncts…for MOOCs. My own take is here: http://www.medievalrobots.org/2013/04/not-content.html, and goes in a slightly different direction…the idea that students=users, universities=content-providers, education=entertainment.

  11. Historiann on 21 Apr 2013 at 10:03 am #

    Hey, Alchemist–it’s great to hear from you again. I missed the A.J. Jacobs and Bruni pieces–will go to your site to catch up now.

  12. “They mean to win Wimbledon!” | More or Less Bunk on 22 Apr 2013 at 6:55 am #

    [...] educational quality rather than price. Yet partnering with edX has the potential to make Amherst even more expensive! That makes as much sense as blancmanges playing [...]

  13. Pooka on 29 Apr 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    But edX is a non-profit organization, with no venture capital as I understand.