Earlier this year academics at Amherst, a liberal-arts college, decided not to offer MOOCs. Professors in the philosophy department at San José State University wrote a letter of complaint because they were encouraged to use a popular online Harvard course, “JusticeX”, as part of their own curriculum. Even at Harvard, which has invested $30m in MOOCs, much of the faculty is prickly. In May 58 professors wrote to the dean of arts and sciences to demand greater oversight of MOOCs.
Online education reached 6.7m students in 2011. A third of those enrolled at traditional colleges took an online course as part of their degrees. MOOCs are only a little different: they cater to learners outside an old-fashioned university, generally offer only certificates of completion, and can be used by, and assess, large numbers of students simultaneously.
A recent study of faculty attitudes to technology by the online publication Inside Higher Ed found much scepticism about MOOCs, but also that staff who have actually taught on them are far more positive about their quality. Nishikant Sonwalkar, the editor of MOOCs Forum, says professors do not want to teach on courses they did not create. At the same time they are concerned about “academic marginalisation”. Popular MOOCs are creating star professors, such as Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller at Stanford University. Mr Sonwalkar observes that many of the academics he has approached to appear in MOOCs decline because they feel uncomfortable on camera.