Back in November, when the University of California was struggling to launch UC Online, an alternative to traditional classroom instruction, Governor Jerry Brown told UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, “There’s stuff going on in Silicon Valley that will leave you in the dust.”
He was talking about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), low-cost programs being developed in public-private partnerships that are taking higher education by storm. By January, California was climbing aboard the bandwagon with the announcement that San Jose State University was going to create a pilot program with Udacity, a Silicon-Valley leader in the world of MOOCs. The California State University (CSU) school would offer students three entry-level courses for the low, low price of $150 and award college credit upon completion.
The online news service Inside Higher Ed reported this week that after two semesters of experimentation, San Jose State is going to take a break and not offer any Udacity classes in the fall. “This is a natural breather time, that's all we're doing,” San Jose State Provost Ellen Junn told The Chronicle of Higher Education, but it’s also a reflection of growing animosity over an idea fueled by venture capital and still in search of a business model.
Junn said preliminary findings indicated that students who took Udacity classes struggled on tests and that the project would be reassessed for Spring 2014.
Universities across the country are giving MOOCs, or some form of them, a hard look as a way of lowering costs and providing more services to more students. MOOCs, in their purest state, are free and credit-less, presenting educational material in a non-traditional format. Instead of the not uncommon online class that is basically a camera pointed at a lecturer, MOOCs offer highly-interactive, entertaining presentations built around mini-lectures. Group interactivity through social networking is encouraged.
Many faculty members have a slightly different view of the situation.
An open letter from the San Jose State philosophy department in May disparaged MOOC classes developed by private companies and, more specifically, the “blended course” that the university crafted with the non-profit edX. “We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice.”
The New York Times called 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.”
Udacity, a MOOC provider out of Stanford, debuted last year with an “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” and drew 160,000 students in more than 190 countries. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology signed up 370,000 students last fall through a partnership with the non-profit MOOC edX. More than 1.7 million students have signed up for classes with Coursera, which works with more than 30 big-name schools, including Princeton, Columbia and Duke.
MOOCs have been hailed as a modern substitute for an outdated form of education—a better, more efficient way to teach. The philosophy department thinks that description is disingenuous. “Let’s not fool ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education. In our case, we had better be sure that this is what we want to do because once the CSU or any university system is restructured in this way it will never recover.”