Harvard Faculty Request Faculty Oversight of HarvardX (Their Usage of edX)

Yesterday, 58 faculty members from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard wrote an open letter to the dean requesting faculty oversight of HarvardX. When schools sign up for edX, their implementations tend to be called SchoolX, thus HarvardX specifically refers to their usage of the MOOC platform, not to the overall edX organization. This distinction is important, given Harvard’s founding role in creating the edX organization and $30m pledge of support.

The letter is short, so I’ll quote it in full (the signatures are much longer than the letter itself).

As the university marks the first anniversary of edX and HarvardX, some faculty are tremendously excited about the potential of HarvardX; others are deeply concerned about the program’s costs and consequences. We appreciate the meetings, town halls, and other arenas in which faculty have been able to discuss HarvardX. But we believe that many critical questions about the relationship of the FAS to HarvardX, and to edX, have not yet been addressed. These questions (which fall outside the remit of the two existing HarvardX faculty committees, most of whose members are not from FAS) range from faculty oversight of HarvardX to the impact online courses will have on the higher education system as a whole.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences is directly responsible for the teaching of Harvard undergraduates and Ph.D. students. It is our responsibility to ensure that HarvardX is consistent with our commitment to our students on campus, and with our academic mission. Given the rapid pace of development of HarvardX, we believe it is essential to have a formal, sustained, and structured faculty discussion on these issues as soon as possible. We write to request that you appoint a committee of FAS ladder faculty to draft a set of ethical and educational principles that will govern FAS involvement in HarvardX, to be brought before the FAS for a vote in the coming academic year.

Note that they request FAS ladder faculty, which means tenure and tenure track faculty and specifically not adjuncts and lecturers. It is possible, however, that the requested committee of ladder faculty could choose to involve adjuncts in the process.

In Michael’s recent post on the San Jose State University open letter regarding edX, he called out the missed opportunity for faculty involvement in the future of MOOCs.

By ignoring the scholarship of teaching, the department missed an opportunity to engage the MOOC question in a different way. Rather than thinking of MOOCs as products to be bought or rejected, they could have approached them as experiments in teaching methods that can be validated, refuted, or refined through the collective efforts of a scholarly community. Researchers collaborate across university boundaries all the time. The same can be true in the scholarship of teaching. The faculty could have demanded access to the edX data and the freedom to adjust the course design. The letter authors seem deeply invested in positioning the edX course as something that is locked down from a third-party commercial vendor. But in reality, the edX course is developed by a faculty member and provided by a university-based non-profit entity. Perhaps the department felt that there wasn’t sufficient opportunity in this particular course design to make a request to have a collaboration worthwhile. But their rhetoric gives no indication that there is any room for such exploration under any circumstances, or indeed that the department has anything to learn about use of educational technology that could lead to either improved outcomes or lower costs.

The Harvard letter, in my opinion, takes this more reasoned approach of viewing MOOCs as experiments in “teaching methods that can be validated, refuted, or refined through the collective efforts of a scholarly community”. Let’s hope that media coverage of the Harvard letter keeps this balanced view in mind rather than seeing another example to pit faculty members against the big three MOOC providers.

Update (5/24): In an afternoon article Steve Kolowich at the Chronicle describes more of the motivation for faculty writing the letter as well as the prospects for the requested committee.

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. [snip]

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.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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