MOOCs Incompatible With Amherst College’s Mission of Close Community

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May 5th, 2013 1 Comment Other

The Times Higher Education recently announced that Amherst College, an elite liberal arts school in Massachusetts, has rejected a deal with MOOC-pioneer edX.

Amherst, an institution that prides itself in face-to-face interaction with students and a close-knit sense of community, has been looking for an online education company to partner with, and turned to edX as a logical candidate.

David Cox, a math professor at Amherst, says it’s important for small liberal arts schools to jump on the online learning bandwagon, and believes it would be a win-win situation for both institutions. “I think [these companies] actually need to talk to the people at liberal arts colleges,” he says, referring to the positive influence schools like Amherst could have on MOOC policy-making procedures.

Other staff members were equally as enthusiastic about the prospect, but saw too many risks involved in partnering with edX in particular. “It’s not something they [the faculty] reject totally,” President Carolyn Martin said in a phone interview with THE. “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.”

These “core values” Martin refers to, which range from things like “close colloquy” to a “purposefully small residential community,” were not found to be compatible with the impersonal nature of MOOCs. Since edX was originally intended to offer free science online courses to students, its format is largely lecture-based, which may not compliment the more interactive educational goals of a liberal arts program. In addition, most edX-sponsored MOOCs grant students with completion certificates bearing the affiliated school’s name, a stipulation that Amherst found difficult to swallow.

EdX invited Amherst to join its ranks under a $2 million five-year contract. But Amherst administrators doubted whether they would receive their end of the bargain. “Would Amherst get as much from the collaboration as edX would get from Amherst?” asks a 16-page internal study by a nine-member committee of faculty and administrators laying out the pros and cons of making a deal with edX. “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?”

For Amherst, the risk of banding together with a major firm like MOOC outweighs the reason. There are certain tenets of traditional learning— such as intimacy, personalized attention, and privacy of environment— that the institution still values, and that would be lost in the move.

So far, Wellesley College near Boston is the only small liberal arts school like Amherst to have joined the edX cause. By October, nearly 100,000 Wellesley students had enrolled in edX’s first two online offerings.

“Few of us have any idea where things may go,” said Wellesley College President Kim Bottomly, referring to the school’s headlong decision to partner with edX. “It’s going to take a while to figure out how we’re going to use it successfully.”

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Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Google+ or @sagamilena

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