Backlash builds against online classes

A man works on his computer in a newly opened reading room at the New York Public Library specifically for online users in New York, N.Y.

Last fall Duke University announced a plan to offer online courses -- for credit -- through a company called 2U. Last week Duke’s faculty said “not so fast.”

Some professors didn’t like how the administration handled the deal, says Tom Robisheaux, chair of the Duke Arts and Sciences Council, which voted down the contract. Others just aren’t wild about teaching online.

“I think we at Duke need a little bit more time to think about this,” he says. “The only way we will get experience and answers to some of these questions is actually to try a pilot project at some point.”

With more people questioning the high price of a degree, colleges are scrambling to figure out how to use technology to save money and stay competitive. As more of them turn to online classes, some professors are pushing back.

Earlier this month faculty at Amherst College rejected an invitation to team up with Harvard and MIT to offer massive open online courses, or MOOCs, for free.

“We work with students pretty closely and the idea of teaching 100,000 students remotely just doesn't seem like it fit Amherst’s goals and values,” says Stephen George, professor of biology and neuroscience.

Faculty at both schools say they haven’t ruled out online education. A handful of professors at Duke already teach MOOCs, says Robisheaux.

They’re also aware of the risks of getting left behind.“There are very powerful reasons to want to do it if it is a great movement and that’s the direction of the future,” says Amherst’s Stephen George. “Either way is risky.”

Tenured professors have been slow to embrace online education, says Elaine Allen with the Babson Survey Research Group. In an annual survey, less than a third of chief academic officers said their faculty accept the value of teaching online.

“Over the ten years that we have done our survey, faculty opinion of online education really has not changed,” Allen says.

And it may not, she says, until her generation of college professors retires.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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