Bravo to Amherst faculty!

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Amherst College seal

In what is probably the first public “rejection letter” handed to the heretofore uncriticized MOOC phenomenon, Amherst College has said “No thanks” to joining the non-profit platform, edX. The piece at Inside Higher Ed offers some of the reasons why faculty voted down the prospect after months of negotiations with edX. They’re worth listing out there:

  • Incompatibility with the liberal arts – MOOCs were conceived by folks in large and/or wealthy research institutions – Harvard, MIT, Stanford – and by folks rooted in the sciences. While Amherst is, like these others, an elite school (unlike EMU), it is 1) tiny by comparison (like us) and 2) a liberal arts school (like us).
  • Pushing quantity over quality and connection – The “M” in MOOC stands for “massive,” as in “let’s get as many people in this thing as we possibly can!” Amherst explicitly structures itself around small, colloquy/seminar format courses. These two approaches are not easily reconciled, if they’re reconcilable at all, and Amherst faculty spotted this a mile off.
  • Perpetuating an anemic pedagogical approach – Another thing Amherst faculty rightly spotted and resisted was the MOOCs use of the “information transfer” approach to teaching, simply digitized. Teachers lecture, students listen, teacher gives quiz, students take quiz, teachers grade quiz – wash, rinse, repeat, then give final. MOOCs currently have zero in the way of more substantive forms of engagement and assessment. Amherst faculty don’t teach like this and weren’t willing to take a step backward, pedagogically.
  • “Mastery?” – MOOCs grant certificates of “mastery” for the completion of courses. The bar for what constitutes “mastery” in this case – watching lectures, taking simple quizzes – is incredibly low, to the point of almost completely emptying out the word of any substantive meaning whatsoever. Amherst faculty saw that granting ascent to this credentialing scheme would water down its own credibility as an elite institution. The “benefits” of spreading the Amherst “brand” in this manner were not seen to be inadequate. (The capitalistic/marketing language that’s used to justify these MOOCs – even the non-profit ones like edX – continues to grate at my nerves.)

Finally, the leader of the MOOC resistance at Amherst, neuroscience program chair Stephen A. George, provided an apt metaphor:

He compared edX to industrial agriculture. “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.

(This should strike a nerve for folks at EMU, whose commitment to sustainability and care of God’s creation shows up in many concrete ways on campus, in and out of the classroom.)

As the house that helped cultivate the mind of one of the most brilliant authors in recent times, David Foster Wallace, it’s great to see Amherst exercise such reasoned and critical discernment around whether or not to board the the MOOC freight train. But is the engine slowing down? One professor mused, “2012 was the year of the MOOCs. 2013 will be the year of buyer’s regret.”