At the end of April, just as the spring semester began winding down at university campuses across the United States, the philosophy faculty at San Jose State University got together to write a letter. The letter, written on behalf of the department as a whole, was addressed to Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel.
Its contents revealed the growing polarisation within the US university system regarding the emergence of MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses - as alternatives to live teaching by a physically present professor.
For those who believe flesh-and-blood interaction is crucial to the learning process, the story behind the letter penned by the philosophy faculty is a sordid one, reflecting the emerging chasm between the rich university and the poor university. San Jose State University, part of the public university system in California, belongs squarely in the latter category, having faced scores of budgetary setbacks and cuts in the past several years.
Influenced by these financial pressures, and the fact that an initial tryout of a MOOC on "Circuits and Electronics" yielded better student grades, Mohammad H Qayoumi, the university's president, decided to boost the number of MOOCs in use on his campus. His decision was supported by the rest of the California state university system, all of whose members also decided to pursue further integration of MOOCs.
Private universities with huge endowments and wealthy students are... the least likely to be plopped before a computer and asked to imbibe knowledge from a professor who will never know their name.
In the days leading up to the letter's writing, the philosophy department had been asked by the university to integrate a course on justice by Harvard professor Michael Sandel into their curriculum. That they were to be replaced by a recording from Harvard was an irony not lost on the professors: they pointed out the injustice of this form of teaching justice, and noted the losses to a less-affluent student body watching a taped interaction between a Harvard professor and Harvard students.
Those who produced such courses, the letter asserted, were complicit in creating a divide within the US higher education system, with only the best-off receiving the privilege of a live education and a real professor. At public universities such as their own, the professors wrote, the professor would soon be reduced to a glorified teaching assistant, and eventually become obsolete.
The response to Massive Open Online Courses has not always been so hostile. Indeed, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, colleges and universities jumped to join the consortiums when they first heard about MOOCs. Edyx, a Cambridge-based non-profit associated with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Coursera, a Bay Area start-up, both reported more requests to join the consortium of MOOC providers than they could handle.
None of the schools, it seemed, wanted to risk being on the outside of cutting-edge instruction. The fact that the base cost for each MOOC was nearly $250,000, with an additional $50,000 for each use - not including the labour costs of professors tasked with using them as part of a course - did not seem to deter them.
MOOCs' first detractors cited philosophical objections. In early April 2013, the faculty of Amherst College turned down the proposal to use MOOCs, saying that it went against their mission of providing learning through "close colloquy" and promoting the "information dispensation" model of teaching. The vote against MOOCs at Amherst was 70 against and 34 in favour. Duke University followed Amherst's example a few weeks later, rejecting a proposal to allow students to get course credits for classes they took online.
The rejections by Amherst College and Duke University are noteworthy, but they skirt the issue put forth by the San Jose professors' letter, whose students and faculty represent the most at-risk group when it comes to the proliferation of MOOCs. Private universities with huge endowments and wealthy students are, as statistics indicate, the least likely to be plopped before a computer and asked to imbibe knowledge from a professor who will never know their name. That burden will fall to students in public universities, community colleges, and the like, where budgets are tighter and resources are fewer.
Furthermore, if bringing labour costs down was the goal of adopting MOOCs, a survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that the courses don't necessarily achieve this. Professors teaching a MOOC found that the amount of time invested in answering posts, monitoring discussion forums, and providing feedback was far more significant than they had imagined. On the other hand, the survey also reported that professors' enthusiasm for teaching a MOOC rose from 26.4 percent before they taught the course to 56.4 percent afterwards.
It is not yet known whether the open letter written by the faculty at San Jose State University will succeed in discarding MOOCs. Michael Sandel himself responded to the letter, saying emphatically that the last thing he wished to do by producing a course on justice was to cheat colleagues at other institutions of their vocation and livelihood. His response was both honest and candid, as were the intentions expressed by the faculty who demanded it.
Better than nothing?
Neither Sandel nor the faculty of San Jose State University, however, really touched on the core question afflicting academia in the US. With unemployment still high and the cost of higher education rising, the move towards technical and skill-based education has left liberal arts education devalued and increasingly neglected. Hundreds of courses in the humanities, literature, art and philosophy have been cut from the course offerings at public universities and community colleges, and recent PhDs in these disciplines are experiencing higher-than-ever rates of joblessness.
Given this grim picture, MOOCs may in many cases not be taking a job away from a qualified liberal arts PhD, but rather continuing some means of providing liberal arts education instead of offering none at all.
Indeed, in the case of San Jose State University Department of Philosophy, which has adequate faculty to do the job, MOOCs may showcase a redundancy, a lesser offering when a better one is easily available. However, if future hiring of liberal arts faculty remains as frozen as it is today, and existing professors are never replaced by new ones, then MOOCs may represent the only way that ordinary college students in the US, not wealthy enough to attend a private college flush with cash and star faculty, take a philosophy course in a subject such as justice. This in sum would perhaps be less unjust than them not learning about justice at all.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.