On April 16, the faculty met to discuss the motion to join the edX and begin creating MOOCs through their company. The faculty voted against joining edX, instead approving a motion to have the College pursue its own initiatives to move more class material and classes online and to create ways to incorporate technology in the classroom.
The faculty meeting opened up with remarks from President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin on the death of Five-College Fellow Merle Ivone Barriga Ramirez, who worked in the Department of Theater and Dance. After her remarks the faculty observed a moment of silence.
Dean of the Faculty Gregory Call then made a few remarks, stating that edX had recently proposed another option to the faculty regarding its programming, offering a self-supported model, otherwise known as the edX “beta” MOOC model, as an alternative to their “supported” MOOC model. This model would allow the College to decide whether or not to offer a certificate the first time each course was offered and would not have to pay edX for the initial beta courses. However, if a course was offered more than once, certificates would be required and the College would still have to create the courses themselves and would get minimal assistance from edX when creating the courses, which would incur infrastructure and staffing costs to the College. This resulted in three options, the edX “supported” MOOC model, the edX “beta” MOOC model and the option of the College working to create more open source options itself, all of which would have comparable costs.
The faculty opened up the discussion of MOOCs with the “Sarat” Motion, put forth by LJST and Political Science Professor Austin Sarat, which stated “that the Faculty endorse Amherst College’s participation in the AmherstX pilot project and within five years vote on whether Amherst College should continue to offer online courses.”
However, another motion was put forth by Professor of Biology and Neuroscience Stephen George as an alternative motion, which stated “The Faculty ask that the College invest in making it possible for Amherst courses and course materials to be available online, to the extent desired by those teaching the courses. The online courses would be free of charge and without credit or other certification. Amherst’s stated mission is to offer ‘learning through close colloquy’ that takes place ‘in a purposefully small residential community.’ That mission is best served by having the College itself, rather than an outside organization that offers so-called massive open online courses, develop and offer these online courses and course materials.”
Professor George presented this motion as a way to reject joining MOOC organizations such as edX while moving forward with online courses and course materials to try to continue to improve classes. He stated that there were other options for obtaining technology similar to those offered by edX, and that joining MOOC programs weren’t necessary to gain access to those technologies. Furthermore, he stated that there were better ways to assess student learning than simply giving out a grade, such as giving comments that help students grow, and that edX as it currently stands is not capable of providing this through their technology. Furthermore, he said there were other ways to increase the visibility of the College, such as putting more materials online directly, and that pursuing online education on their own would allow professors more freedom to teach their way.
Other professors agreed, adding that they were underwhelmed by the tools edX currently offered, that edX seemed too new and unreliable a program, that there were better things to spend money on and that the requirement to offer certificates, either immediately or after the first time the course is offered, was against the College’s interests.
However, other faculty members were for joining edX, and were particularly drawn to the new “beta” model due the optional nature of offering certificates for the original courses. The proponents of edX insisted that it would not be easy for the College to set up technology that edX provides, that edX evolving was a good sign because they were becoming more flexible to the College’s demands and cheaper, that with the “George” motion faculty members would be unable to experiment with MOOCs, that if the College did not join edX now it was unlikely that the College would make the effort to create the technology offered by edX and that online education and MOOCs are not going away, and it would be beneficial for faculty to have the experience of creating MOOCs so that they can help make better MOOC programs.
The faculty then voted to adopt the “George” motion over the “Sarat” motion, and ended up approving the “George” motion by paper ballot, with 70 yeses, 36 noes and five abstentions.
Following the vote, President Martin stated that the College would not sit by and do nothing when it comes to online education and improving technology in the classroom, stating that they can not sit on the laurels of being Amherst forever, and that many faculty members want to do more and should be able to do more when it comes to experimenting with online learning and technology.