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Inside Higher Ed: EdX Rejected

By Ry Rivard, for Inside Higher Ed

Amherst College clock tower

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 last Tuesday not to work with edX, a non-profit 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.

“It’s not something they [the faculty] reject totally,” Dr 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 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 Dr Martin.

EdX also tried to sell itself to 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,” Dr Sitze said.

A 16-page internal study by a nine-member committee of faculty and administrators 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 (£1.3 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 says 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 like Amherst.

David Cox, a maths professor who favoured 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.”

Dr 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?” Dr Sitze said. “2012 was the year of the Moocs. 2013 will be the year of buyer’s regret.”

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