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Harvard Professors Call for Greater Oversight of MOOCs

Several dozen professors in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences have signed a letter to their dean asking for formal oversight of the massive open online courses offered by Harvard through edX, a MOOC provider co-founded by the university.

While “some faculty are tremendously excited about HarvardX,” the professors wrote, referring to the university’s brand within the edX platform, “other are deeply concerned about the program’s cost and consequences.”

The letter, published on Thursday in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, was signed by 58 professors in the university division, which is known as the FAS.

The authors go on to ask Michael D. Smith, dean of the FAS, to appoint a committee of arts and sciences faculty members “to draft a set of ethical and educational principles” that would govern their colleagues’ involvement in Harvard-branded MOOCs.

The letter comes several weeks after the philosophy department at San Jose State University wrote an open letter to Michael Sandel, a government professor at Harvard, expressing concerns about how edX’s plans to license its MOOCs to cash-strapped colleges like San Jose State might have devastating consequences for professors at those colleges.

That letter was on the minds of Harvard’s FAS professors when they convened to discuss MOOCs at a meeting this month, said Peter J. Burgard, a professor of German at Harvard. In their letter to Dean Smith, the Harvard professors allude to “many critical questions,” as yet unanswered, about “the impact online courses will have on the higher-education system as a whole.”

But, perhaps more immediately, the professors were irked that Harvard had become so deeply involved in MOOCs before consulting with them, said Mr. Burgard.

“It was presented to us as a fait accompli in the fall, and the first time we had a chance to ask questions about it was in the winter,” he said. This spring, as MOOC skeptics have grown more vocal, “there’s a bit of a groundswell of people thinking now more seriously about it,” Mr. Burgard said.

But the 58 signatories of the letter, out of the hundreds of professors in the FAS, might not get their way. In a written statement to The Chronicle, a spokesman for the dean suggested that a new committee, consisting solely of FAS professors, was not in the cards.

“The dean will continue to work with the two existing HarvardX faculty committees—on both of which the FAS has the largest faculty representation of any Harvard school—and with faculty members across the FAS to support innovation in teaching and learning and to promote ongoing dialogue and debate of these important issues,” said Jeff Neal, the dean’s director of communications.

“Dean Smith wants to ensure that every individual member of the faculty continues to have the academic freedom to structure their courses and their pedagogy as they deem appropriate, and the institutional support those efforts require,” Mr. Neal continued. “HarvardX is a university initiative that supports faculty innovation in online and blended models of teaching. Ultimately, HarvardX consists of the faculty members—from the FAS and across the university—who have chosen to undertake these innovative efforts.”

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